Sarina Wiegman’s gambles pay off as England produce stirring comeback to defy major tournament narrative
England reached the semi-finals of the women’s European Championship with a stirring 2-1 comeback win over Spain after extra-time.
Substitute Ella Toone equalised six minutes from time and Georgia Stanway struck a brilliant 96th-minute winner to set up a last-four meeting with Sweden or Belgium in Sheffield next week.
It felt like a landmark victory for the Lionesses, which should capture the country’s imagination and further accelerate the growth of the women’s game.
In Pictures | Women’s Euro 2022 (Quarter-Final): England vs Spain
For 84 minutes, it was a familiar story for an English national team in the knockout stages of a major tournament as they were outclassed by a technically superior and savvier opponent.
Led by Aitana Bonmati, the Barcelona playmaker, the visitors dominated possession between the boxes, giving the Lionesses the run-around with their familiar slick patterns of play, and deservedly took the lead through Esther Gonzalez’s 55th-minute strike.
The forward finished coolly from six yards after Athenea Del Castillo skinned Rachel Daly in the box, as Spain finally added a cutting edge to their slick passing game.
England, by contrast, managed just one shot on target before Toone’s goal and their chances of breaking down a side who masters at protecting a lead and controlling matches appeared to be fading as the clocked ticked towards 90.
But England’s best chance of a breakthrough had always appeared to be from set-pieces or crosses into the box and Toone volleyed home a canny knockdown from her fellow substitute and Manchester United teammate Alessia Russo.
From that point, there was only one winner, with England suddenly stronger and more purposeful against a tiring Spain.
Stanway got the goal her performance merited with a brilliant 20 yards strike, surging forward as Spain backed off and firing across goalkeeper Sandra Paños.
The manner of the victory was a satisfying upending of the usual narrative when English national teams face more technical and experienced opponents at this stage. The Lionesses will now aim to go one better than in 2017 in Sheffield next week.
Wiegman gamble pays off
At 1-0 down, Wiegman took the biggest gamble of her England career to date, replacing her side’s three likeliest sources of a goal in search of fresh impetus.
Off came the tournament’s leading scorer, Beth Mead as well as the Lionesses’ record-scorer Ellen White and playmaker Fran Kirby, who was responsible for creating the only goal in the win over Austria and opened the floodgates with the opening goal against Northern Ireland on Friday.
Chloe Kelly, Alessia Russo and Ella Toone entered the fray, with England’s tournament hanging in the balance.
Wiegman’s call could scarcely have been more justified, with Russo heading down for Toone to volley home the equaliser and raise the roof of the Amex Stadium.
The changes would have led to serious questions for Wiegman if England had not found a way back, but instead it will go down as another masterstroke from the Dutchwoman, demonstrating yet again her tactical nous as well as England’s excellent strength in depth.
Stanway and Toone will dominate the headlines but England’s man of the match was centre-half Millie Bright, who produced a colossal display in the heart of the back four.
The Chelsea defender stood tall to repel wave after wave of Spanish attacks in what was perhaps her finest performance in an England shirt.
The Lionesses goal-scoring has caught the eye at these finals but mean defences win tournaments, and Esther’s goal was the first they have conceded in four matches.
Wiegman took a risk before the tournament in moving captain Leah Williamson into the back line, breaking up Bright’s partnership with Alex Greenwood, but the move is so far paying off. Bright, in particular, has been outstanding.