England’s dreams of reaching their first ever Women’s World Cup came crashing down this evening as the reigning champions sealed a 2-1 victory in a highly thrilling encounter in front of 53,512 spectators in Lyon.
Despite their best efforts, the Lionesses came up short in Lyon and experienced the same heart-break as they did four years ago at the World Cup semi-final when they lost to Japan with the same 2-1 scoreline. Chelsea's Carly Telford, Millie Bright and Fran Kirby all featured in this latest agonising loss with Bright sent off in the second half.
All three goals were conceded in the first 45 minutes. The holders opened the scoring after 10 minutes from Christen Press, and England responded shortly after when Ellen White calmly slotted home but the USA’s leading goal scorer, Alex Morgan, put her side ahead on the half-hour mark.
After beating Norway 3-0 last Thursday, England earned themselves a place in their third consecutive semi-final in a major tournament and it was by far their biggest test yet.
The encounter with the reigning champions was their 17th meeting, and the Americans now lead with 11 wins to England’s four. This fixture was the second time the two teams have squared up at a World Cup, and the first was back in 2007 when the USA triumphed 3-0. However, the Lionesses have come a long way since then and their most recent match-up before this tonight was much more of a closer game when it finished with a 2-2 draw in the SheBelieves Cup.
Three changes were made to England’s team; Telford came in between the sticks to make her second appearance in a big tournament, having debuted against Argentina in the group stage. Houston Dash’s Rachel Daly and Arsenal’s Beth Mead replaced Fran Kirby and Barcelona’s Toni Duggan. Bright remained stationed at the back while Karen Carney was an unused substitute. Kirby came onto the field of play with just over 30 minutes left to play when she was swapped in for Mead.
The USA’s start to the match was relentless, and they hardly gave England a second to breathe. Their first chance came after four minutes when Rose Lavelle dummied past Bright on the touchline and played back to her team-mate who struck on target, but Telford parried the ball away for the no.6 to smash clear. The Americans registered the first goal of the match after 10 minutes meaning that they have scored within 12 minutes of every game in this tournament. Kelley O’Hara burst clear down the right flank and whizzed a ball into the far post for Press to head beyond Telford.
The Lionesses did not let the early goal rattle them and found a route back into the game just nine minutes later when England’s top goal scorer found the back of the net to make it her sixth goal of France 2019. Mead whipped a cross into a congested USA box, and the Manchester City forward snuck between Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper to guide her shot into the top corner.
Close to half time, Bright found her name in referee Alves Batista’s notebook when she outmuscled Morgan off the ball and at the same time caught the forward in the face with her arm, which resulted in a booking for the Chelsea defender.
England went into the break with a one-goal deficit when Morgan caught Demi Stokes at left-back off guard. The striker met an aerial ball at the near post and steered a powerful header into the top left corner leaving Telford stranded in the middle of the goal.
The current champions started and ended the first period the stronger team, Blues’ goalkeeper was kept on her toes at all times with coach Jill Ellis’ front three being a constant threat. Although the statistics would not suggest that as both sides had almost an even amount of ball possession with England’s 49 per cent to the USA’s 51.
England pushed for the leveller immediately after the interval, and a golden chance came for the Lionesses from a free-kick in a dangerous position when Kiera Walsh floated a long ball towards the back post which found Bright. She rose above her marker, but her downward header was gathered safely by Alyssa Naeher, and an English Chelsea player scoring in the tournament was not to be.
Phil Neville shuffled his pack with half hour left to play, and Kirby came onto the field of play as a replacement for Mead in central midfield.
Just as England's hopes looked to be restored through a White effort, they were quickly snatched away when VAR reviewed the goal as offside. Walsh had flashed a quick ball into Jill Scott who spotted and delivered a perfectly timed ball to the no.18 who buried her shot underneath USA’s no.1 but from a marginally offside position.
The Lionesses had a chance to take the game into extra-time when the referee pointed to the spot with 10 minutes left on the clock after Sauerbrunn made contact with White who had sight on goal. Kirby was the playmaker, she spun away from her player in midfield and sent a clever through-ball to Stokes who was lingering in the box. The defender knocked the ball across the six-yard box, and as White was about to pull the lever, the American defender brushed the striker from behind.
Captain Steph Houghton bravely stepped up for a chance to equalise, but her side-footed effort was unfortunately not struck well enough, and that enabled Naeher to dive the right way to smother the ball with ease.
The match took a turn for the worse when England went down to 10 players after Bright received her second yellow card. With just minutes remaining, she made a reckless tackle on Morgan, who was voted as player of the match. Although she did not appear to make much contact, her studs were up, which gave the referee no choice in pulling out a second card to send her on her way.
England produced a performance from which they should walk away from with their heads held high. Their next focus is the match for third place which takes place on Saturday in Nice – the Lionesses' opponent will be decided tomorrow night when the second semi-final between the Netherlands and Sweden takes place.