England entered the World Cup knockout stages still waiting to look like the dominant team it had hoped it could be. Sure, England had yet to lose a game — an accomplishment during this chaotic tournament — but so far its performances had seemed a few rungs short of the level required to accomplish its goals: to reach its first final, to lift the World Cup trophy for the first time.
England had arrived in Australia last month without three of the country’s best players, all ruled out because of serious knee injuries. Another starter was hurt in the group stage and missed a game and a half. Then the Lionesses lost their best offensive player at this World Cup, the young midfielder Lauren James, to a suspension after she stamped on a Nigerian player in the round of 16.
But on Saturday night, in front of a Sydney crowd that presented yet another hurdle by favoring the upstart Colombians as the host nation’s preferred next opponent, England found a way forward again.
Overcoming an early goal with one of their own just before halftime and a second midway through the second half, the Lionesses delivered the kind of performance they had been saying was just around the corner, beating Colombia, 2-1, to advance to the semifinals for the second straight World Cup.
There, England will face Australia, which hours earlier had claimed its place by winning an extended penalty shootout against France up the coast in Brisbane.
“We have been put up against a lot this tournament,” said forward Alessia Russo, “and we always find a way through.”
Russo scored the winner in the 63rd minute, a right-footed finish after an assist from midfielder Georgia Stanway and a momentary lapse by Colombia’s defense that sent her in alone. Her coach and teammates used the word “clinical” to describe both Russo’s shot and the team’s focus, refusing to panic despite falling behind.
The stands were late to fill up at the start of the match, as many of the spectators appeared to be lingering outside, part of a raucous crowd in Cathy Freeman Park watching Australia edge France on an outdoor viewing screen. But when they did, it was clear the crowd favored the Colombians, who entered, against all odds, as the last team from the Americas still standing.
Those supporters erupted when Colombia midfielder Leicy Santos opened the scoring from the right side of the penalty area in the 44th minute, her shot arcing just over the outstretched right glove of England goalkeeper Mary Earps, who had surrendered only one other goal all tournament.
Surprised by the goal, England was reminded by its captain, Millie Bright, to stick to its game plan, to trust that its chances would come, too. Lauren Hemp provided the evidence almost immediately, tying the score only seconds before halftime by pouncing on a free rebound after Colombia’s goalkeeper fumbled the ball just steps from her goal line.
England, the reigning European champion and a World Cup semifinalist four years ago in France, entered this tournament as a top contender but a wounded one, having lost forward Beth Mead, midfielder Fran Kirby and defender Leah Williamson to serious knee injuries in the months before the World Cup. The depth that had delivered a title at last summer’s Euros offered a measure of comfort for Coach Sarina Wiegman and her team, but a lack of goals that had marked the team’s run-up to the tournament showed no sign of abating once it began.
Apart from a 6-1 win against China in the group stage, England had struggled to score, relying instead on Earps and a veteran defense. England produced single goals in its other two wins in the group stage, against Haiti and Denmark, and none at all in its round-of-16 win over Nigeria, which was only settled in a penalty-kick shootout after 120 scoreless minutes.
Two goals against Colombia will not answer all of those questions for England, but the Lionesses turned in a far stronger showing than they had in the previous round. For one day at least, that counted as a positive.
“You want to get better as the tournament goes, and I think we did just that tonight,” forward Chloe Kelly said.
England will face an even taller task in the next round against Australia in front of another crowd even more eager to see it defeated. It will again be without James, whose two-game ban means she will miss the semifinal, too. But for Wiegman, neither the fans nor the stakes will be England’s biggest challenge.
“No, it’s the opponent,” Wiegman said. “And ourselves.”