Hemp and Bronze stretch Sweden to breaking point on way to England victory

Sports quiz aficionados will doubtless soon be asked what Edmonton, Enschede, Lyon and Sheffield have in common?

The answer, obvious to all Lionesses fans, is that they hosted England’s four successive semi-finals in the past two World Cup and European Championship tournaments.

Thanks to the excellence of Fran Kirby, Mary Earps and Beth Mead in particular on Tuesday night Sheffield now ranks as the odd one out among that quartet. Yet despite the 4-0 win, the final part of England’s Euro 2022 journey towards Wembley seemed initially as hazard-laden as anything they have encountered since reaching the last four of the 2015 World Cup.

If long stretches of the road from Canada’s prairie country to the eastern Netherlands, on through central France and back home to South Yorkshire proved pleasingly straightforward, a journey which, for several members of this team, began seven years ago has also contained its share of setbacks.

The last time England were in a European Championship semi‑final – in 2017 when they lost against the Netherlands in Enschede – a security scare led to their team bus taking a detour en route to the match and arriving uncomfortably late.

Five years on everything ran considerably more smoothly, with Sarina Wiegman’s squad flying north on a private charter jet from their tournament base in south-west London.

As they, briefly, cruised above the clouds those players would not have been human had their thoughts not turned to the £55,000‑per‑woman bonuses the Football Association will award them in exchange for winning the final. For many in Wiegman’s team the tantalising possibility of moving up the property ladder can only have produced an extra layer of pressure.

It was perhaps manifested by a helter‑skelter start in which only Earps’ outstretched boot prevented Sweden being a goal up within 30 seconds after Keira Walsh was uncharacteristically dispossessed in central midfield.

Although Mead swiftly headed a decent chance wide, Walsh’s room for playmaking manoeuvre from deep was being severely restricted by tight marking while Lucy Bronze frequently found herself caught dangerously out of position at right‑back.

With Bronze struggling to answer the first‑half questions her new Barcelona clubmate Fridolina Rolfö kept asking her and Kosovare Asllani persistently tightening the tourniquet around Walsh, Peter Gerhardsson’s side sensed opportunity.

The excellent Earps, having by far her busiest night of the tournament and more than justifying her once controversial status as Wiegman’s first‑choice goalkeeper, saved well from Arsenal’s Stina Blackstenius before the same forward headed against the bar.

Admittedly England had their attacking moments – along with a few half‑chances – but the undercurrents of anxiety rippling through the crowd and the way Bronze kept fiddling with her socks (a sure sign she’s not having one of her best games) highlighted Sweden’s early superiority.

Albeit in a different way, it was threatening to turn into an even tougher game than the Lionesses’ narrowly won quarter‑final against Spain. After 30 minutes no one could possibly have imagined Wiegman’s players would be dancing for so long after the final whistle that some were still strutting their stuff even after the celebratory strains of Sweet Caroline finally faded.

As much as Magdalena Eriksson and her fellow defenders needed to remain on their toes in the face of Mead, Kirby, Ellen White and co, Gerhardsson’s team caused an early commotion to rival that created by the army of yellow-and-blue-wigged, literally drum banging, Sweden supporters as they marched en masse to Bramall Lane.

Those Scandinavians had relished reminding England fans that, in 26 meetings previous meetings between the two sides, the Lionesses had registered only three wins, with Sweden triumphing 15 times.

Very much against the run of play, Mead finally started correcting that imbalance by steadying English nerves in the 34th minute. Her sixth goal in five games – a blur of steadying touch, sharp swivel and unerring finish – arrived after Lauren Hemp and Bronze stretched Gerhardsson’s defence to the point where the elastic snapped.

After that England regained a large element of their early tournament poise and Kirby, increasingly outstanding, began really worrying Sweden while also helping Wiegman’s team to begin winning a healthier percentage of second balls.

As dusk descended on Sheffield, Walsh shrugged off her shackles and Euro 2022 was illuminated by a fascinating fast‑paced contest showcasing the resilience in adversity which the Lionesses had mislaid during the latter stages of Phil Neville’s tenure.

When, at the outset of the second half, Bronze – no longer bothered about her socks – met Mead’s corner and headed England’s second goal, the first, extremely tentative, choruses of “Football’s coming home” became audible.

With Earps required to make a wonder save to deny Blackstenius once more it was only when Alessia Russo’s audacious backheel, and Kirby’s chip propelled England into a three- and then four-goal lead that those fans began to believe Wembley really was looming into view.

Against all early odds, Sheffield had proved distinctly different to Edmonton, Enschede and Lyon. After a series of agonising wrong turns, it seems England are finally on their very own redemption road.