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The Lioness’ World Cup journey: One step short of immortality but still the nation’s heroes

Sarina Wiegman’s England side dazzled and delighted the whole country for the last month at the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. They played with an immense amount of bravery to secure huge results along their journey to the World Cup final, where they were narrow runners-up to a tremendously talented Spanish outfit.

It took a while to build the momentum to challenge for the crown, as countless nations of incredible footballing pedigree fell by the wayside. However, England’s Lionesses proved their worth as they achieved something no England side, men or women, have achieved since 1966.

This is the story of the Lionesses’ journey throughout the 2023 World Cup.

Russo celebrates her semi-final goal against Australia
Group Stage: Unconvincing Beginnings

At the start of the tournament, England failed to showcase the best of their abilities as they scraped past lowly-ranked Haiti in a hard-fought battle. Alessia Russo was tasked with leading the line, despite her relentlessness in her efforts she was found isolated at the top of the pitch. The win was secured by a 29th-minute Georgia Stanway retaken penalty and there were growing concerns about England’s fluidity in an attacking sense.

The second group stage opposition was Denmark and England improved on their lacklustre display against Haiti despite winning by the same score line. Lauren James’ 6th-minute goal was enough to push England to the cusp of qualification for the knockout rounds. This was a dominant win with England managing 71% possession and barely letting Denmark have a sniff at Mary Earps’ goal. However, a key cog in the centre of the pitch, Kiera Walsh, was withdrawn with an injury which left the Lionesses dispirited.

The final group game had many people debating how Wiegman’s side would set up without Walsh in midfield. A change of formation from four in defence to a back three saw England stamp their authority down on this tournament and made all the competitors sit up and take notice. England ran out 6-1 winners over China in an effervescent display of attacking prowess. This was their best display up until this stage of the competition. The defence led by the tenacious stand-in captain Millie Bright stood firm and conceded just one goal in the opening three games. And the attack was thrust forward by 21-year-old James who scored twice and assisted her teammates a further three times in this match and was described by her manager as doing “special things”.

Highlights of England’s thrashing of China in their last group stage game
Knockout Stages: Relentless and resilient – the Lionesses never give up

If there was one performance on England’s run to the final that encapsulated the heart and never say die attitude of this side, then it would be the 120-minute stalemate against Nigeria. In this last 16 game, England were entirely second-best. Nigeria pushed and harried England, which amounted to 20 shots at Earps’ goal, albeit with few finding the target. The standout and most controversial moment of the entire tie was when James had a momentary moment of madness. After all the plaudits and conversations about her being up there as the best in the tournament to date, she let herself down when she imprudently stamped on Michelle Alozie’s back late in regulation time. This was deemed as violent conduct and England had to navigate the closing minutes without conceding, before even thinking about extra time. The side rode their luck and managed to take the tie to penalties where they prevailed 4-2 winners. After such an arduous watch, Wiegman said, “I don’t know what my heart rate is, I just know I’m 10 years older”. Nigeria was unlucky to find themselves on the losing side, but England used every ounce of their experience as the European champions live to fight another day at this tournament.

Lauren James’ sending off for a stamp on Michelle Alozie’s back

One of the dark horses of the tournament lay in wait for Weigman’s side in the quarterfinals. Colombia was a dangerous side and had huge backing in the crowd of over 75,000. The Lionesses dealt with the hostile environment and the setback of going behind by snatching an equaliser late into first-half stoppage time. In the 63rd minute Russo, who had not had the most prolific of tournaments – only scoring once – found the ball deflecting to her and managed to find the net. This side may not have been winning games with style, but they were getting the job done. Winning this match 2-1 over Colombia to progress to the semi-finals in a tournament where the footballing powerhouse of Germany, USA, France and Brazil had all exited proved that making it far on the world’s biggest stage does not come easy.

Semi-finals: Facing the Matildas on their home patch

England were used to not being the crowd’s favourites after their experience against Colombia but this time the task was multiplied tenfold. Australia had captured the hearts and minds of all those across the not entirely football-loving nation with ‘Matildas Mania’ now in full swing. With world superstar Sam Kerr starting her first match of the tournament after injury the task would become that much tougher for England. The Lionesses took the lead through Ella Toone. Then as England dominated second-half proceedings a bolt from the blue blew the game wide open as Sam Kerr belted one in after the defenders failed to close her down. But continuing with the trends of their performances in this tournament, England fought back in style and took the game away from Australia through goals from Lauren Hemp and Russo. This was a monumental win for an England side that had failed to progress past the semi-final stage at their last two World Cups

England team celebrate their semi final win over hosts Australia
The Final: Heart-breaking end to a wonderful summer

The final did not live up to the hype of what it could’ve been as Spain dominated proceedings throughout. Their performance was professional and technically supreme, something that we are used to witnessing by Spaniards on the club stage with the Barcelona side that won the Champions League. England could not get into the game, apart from Hemp’s shot that hit the crossbar, the attack was devoid of ideas for much of the final. Lucy Bronze had lost possession in the middle of the pitch before Olga Carmona struck wonderfully past Earps in the 29th minute to score the only goal of the game. James, back from her two-match suspension, and Chloe Kelly were tasked with grasping some sort of control in the match, but Spain remained dominant. England had a penalty save by Earps to thank for the score line not growing wider and giving some hope in the closing stages. Spain held on and won the World Cup for the first time since the men’s side triumphed in 2010. England is now still waiting for that lucrative second World Cup title after the first in 1966.

Mary Earps, Ella Toone and Lauren Hemp post match after the loss to Spain with their runners up medals

Despite the unfortunate end to the tournament, the Lionesses proved that women’s football in this country is still in its ascendancy and that win in the European Championships last summer was no one-off. They have played in front of sell-out crowds at Wembley throughout the year and even defeated Brazil in the ‘Finalissima’ in the Spring. The Women’s Super League is seeing record crowds for some of the biggest clubs in the country where many of these England players showcase their world-class talent. The popularity of the women’s game is now the new normal, the inspiration they are exuding to future generations means that there are no signs of slowing. This England side epitomises the fact that football is for everyone, and they are now at the pinnacle of this sport.

Men’s football? Women’s football? This tournament has showcased how football is just football, no matter who is playing.

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