England has returned to the Women's World Cup semifinals for a second straight competition after impressively beating Norway 3-0 in Le Havre, France, on Thursday.
A goal just over two minutes in from Jill Scott set the tone, and Ellen White doubled the advantage before halftime to put the Lionesses in complete control. Lucy Bronze finished off the rout with a thunderbolt from 18 yards off a set play in the 57th minute to send England back to the round where it fell in 2015. The only negative came when Nikita Parris had a penalty kick saved by Ingrid Hjelmseth in the 83rd minute–her second missed spot kick this tournament–but by that point, the result had long been settled.
Phil Neville's side will play the winner of Friday's France-USA showdown in Paris in what will surely be one of the games of the tournament.
Here are three thoughts on the England win:
England's right side dominant
Norway simply had no answer for England's right. With Bronze bombing forward and Parris creating danger both on the ball and with her off-ball movement, the Scandinavian side was on its heels with regularity.
England scored both of its first-half goals down the right and generated its best, ultimately fruitless chances down that channel as well. The first came on a Bronze foray forward, as she beat her defender, got to the end line and cut it back to the center of the box. White completely whiffed on her first-time effort, but it functioned as the perfect inadvertent dummy. Scott stayed ready right behind White and swiftly turned home the cross, tucking it inside the far post to make it 1-0 127 seconds in.
England was wasteful over the next 37 minutes, even though it created plenty down that same side. Parris had a chance to cross from the right side of the box for a number of open teammates, but opted for a lob that went wide of goal. In the 29th minute, White turned a clinical volley toward the frame from a similar position, but her strike hit the post.
She got her just reward in the 40th minute, capping off a wonderful combination between Bronze and Parris down the right, with the latter crossing for White to turn in at the goal mouth. The tally was her fifth of the competition, bringing her level with Alex Morgan and already-eliminated Sam Kerr in the race for the Golden Boot.
England's third came off a set play, also won and generated on the right side. Beth Mead, in off the bench for all of three minutes, cut back her kick to pick out an unmarked Bronze at the top of the box, and the right back fired a one-time rocket under the crossbar to make it 3-0.
England's execution should be viewed as a glaring warning sign for the U.S. Should the Americans get by France–which has a dominant right-sided presence itself in Kadidiatou Diani–England has the tools to unlock that area of their defense, which has appeared vulnerable at times during their run in the competition.
Norway's exit will undoubtedly re-raise the Hegerberg question
Would Norway have won if Aga Hegerberg had played? That was always going to be the question in any defeat. The fact is, Norway had no expectations of Hegerberg playing in this tournament. Her self-imposed hiatus has been going on for two years. This wasn't a pre-tournament announcement that rocked the team to its core. The Norwegians have grown together over time into an impressive, cohesive unit, with other stars, such as Caroline Graham Hansen, taking the reins.
Would it help to have the reigning Ballon d'Or winner in the lineup? Of course. Every team would benefit from that. But Hegerberg wouldn't have been playing left back when England scored two minutes in, either. There's no way to accurately and decisively play out the hypothetical, but this Norway unit was an impressive one all tournament long without Hegerberg on the field. It pushed France to the limit, played Australia to a thriller and ran into a better opponent that was poised to exploit its weak areas.
Hegerberg may never play for her country again, but her former teammates are more than capable of taking the program forward–regardless of whether her asks are met by the Norwegian federation.
Is it coming home?
It very well might be. For all of England's success–five wins in five games, four straight clean sheets (371 minutes without conceding)–it has had an air of simply getting the job done around it as opposed to being that of a dominant force. World Cups are something the best teams tend to grow into, though, and after the VAR-aided win over Cameroon (talk about a "s---show circus"), England was absolutely dynamite on Thursday.
That's not to say it doesn't have faults. Defensive play remains a massive question mark, with Steph Houghton's recoveries and goal-line clearance keeping Norway from getting back into the game. Goalkeeper Karen Bardsley's decision making remains suspect at times. Despite talk of a virus making its way around camp, Houghton and Millie Bright wound up starting in central defense after all, but it remains to be seen whether that's Neville's best pairing.
This was an impressive, statement victory for the reigning SheBelieves Cup champions, but it also gave the prolific, more clinical juggernaut that will be waiting in the next round the feeling that it can definitely score, barring a big improvement in the back. The way England's attack is rounding into form, though, it might not matter.