If you thought the footballing year peaked when England won the Arnold Clark Cup and Millie Bright shared the golden boot with Alexia Putellas…well, you’d be right, but Tuesday evening is a pretty close second.
England have reached the final of Euro 2022.
As sentences go, that’s a relatively decent one.
After a decade spent falling at the penultimate hurdle and often in the most heartbreaking of fashions – Laura Bassett’s own goal, Steph Houghton’s missed penalty, Ellen White’s offside toe – the Lionesses did to Sweden just what Sarina Wiegman’s Netherlands had done to them at this stage five years earlier, with a devastating semi-final victory in front of a raucous home crowd.
However, the win was not quite as straightforward as the 4-0 scoreline would suggest. A pivotal few minutes unfolded just after the hour mark that ensured a potentially nervy evening was instead a comfortable one.
With Sweden knocking on the door in an attempt to halve the deficit, Mary Earps produced a spectacular save – her third big stop of the evening – to stretch and tip a Stina Blackstenius header over the bar.
Moments later, Alessia Russo saw an effort from point blank range saved by Hedvig Lindahl, before collecting the rebound with her back to goal and sending an audacious back heel through the Sweden goalkeeper’s legs.
“Once it fell back to me I thought: right, what’s the quickest route for this ball to get back in the net, because I should have scored in the first place,” Russo recalled. “I just swung at it and luckily it hit the back of the net.
“To score in a semi-final and to progress into the final is a huge highlight of my career. And yeah, I don’t normally score back heels and I don’t think you’ll ever see one again, but I’ll take it for now.”
Having produced a sublime turn to slot home her second during England’s group stage victory over Northern Ireland, the Manchester United striker outdid herself with this outrageous piece of skill.
“You must have so much courage to do such an unpredictable and phenomenal thing like that,” said Wiegman. “No one could ever react on it so it was phenomenal.
“And of course it was the 3-0 so it was like the last, final hit where we knew: okay, now we just consolidate and manage this game.”
The goal was Russo’s fourth of the tournament – all of which have come from the bench.
There have been calls for the Manchester United striker to start ahead of Ellen White, but Wiegman’s starting XI and game plan has remained consistent throughout the tournament. White tires the opposition backline out with her endless running and harrying, before Russo enters the fray as the game become more stretched, and is able to capitalise to devastating affect.
“I think she does everything that she needs to do and she plays really well,” Wiegman replied when asked what Russo needs to do to start. “She plays really well, but before every game we take so many things into consideration.
“She could start but I think with the starting team that have stared every time have done really well too.”
“I’ll take any time I get to play for England,” Russo added. “If that’s the role I’ll take it for sure. I think Ellen does a great job and the whole team wear everyone out. Whenever my chance is there I’ll take it.”