Another summer, another World Cup, and another semi-final for England. By roughly 10pm this evening – or later, if there is no result after ninety minutes – we’ll see if Phil Neville’s England women can go one better than his Euro ‘96 teammate Gareth Southgate and the men’s side. For the winner of this transatlantic clash between the Lionesses and Team USA, a place in the final against Sweden or the Netherlands lies in wait. In the men’s game, a semi-final against the US would be like a gift from the heavens – but this isn’t the men’s game, and the USWNT happen to be the world’s best.
Let’s get one thing clear from the start: England are big underdogs here. Jill Ellis’ side came into the competition with a merciless 13-0 drubbing of Thailand. They haven’t quite maintained that goalscoring pace since, but they topped their group after clean-sheet wins over Chile and Sweden, and have since dispatched Spain and the hosts, France. Tonight, in Lyon, they face an England side that has also won every game on the way here – and hasn’t conceded a goal since the closing stages of their opening game against Scotland. To reach the semi-final, the Lionesses delivered an impressive 3-0 win over Norway.
A final in all but name?
With second-ranked Germany out of contention, these two are the highest-ranked sides left in the World Cup. England are in third, and may well regain their highest-ever spot of second after this run. The problem for Neville and co. is that they’re up against the team at the top of the tree; and the swagger of the American side as they knocked out the host nation shows that they are a side on a mission. Spearheaded by the excellent Megan Rapinoe, the USWNT look pretty close to unstoppable right now; the Lionesses need to find a way to change that.
For both sides, there will be the strong feeling that a win here will put them in the box seat to lift the trophy. It would be England’s first time in a final, while the Americans have been to four and are the current holders. Purely on the numbers so far this tournament, it looks close: England have scored freely and conceded only once, while their opponents have scored even more freely and been similarly tight at the back. The attacking talent on show suggests that this could be a shoot-out, but with the stakes as high as they are and the defences as well-organised, there is a chance the teams will cancel each other out. Paddy Power’s odds of ¾ on fewer than 2.5 goals in normal time might be a good call.
Rapinoe to stand out again?
Megan Rapinoe was the focus of much attention going into the game against France after footage emerged of her saying that if the side retained the World Cup, she would not attend the traditional visit to the White House. This led to a Tweet storm from the current resident of the Presidential home, which doesn’t seem to have distracted the Seattle Reign winger from her job on the pitch; Rapinoe scored twice against France to secure a semi-final place. While she may not have won the approval of Donald Trump, her actions on and off the pitch have earned Rapinoe a whole new approving audience. A big performance in this match would increase that support.
Coming into this game, the captain is tied with teammate Alex Morgan and England’s Ellen White for the tournament Golden Boot – each having scored five, but all of Morgan’s coming in that match against Thailand. Australia’s Sam Kerr also has five, but her side were knocked out in the Round of 16. Betway are offering odds of 12/1 on Rapinoe to repeat her feat from the quarter-final, scoring at least twice. Given how the best players often rise above the fray at the business end of a tournament, it’s worth backing her at those odds.
End of the road for the Lionesses?
After the men’s exits from last year’s World Cup and this year’s Nations League – and the women’s run to this stage in 2015 – the feeling of semi-final disappointment is not unfamiliar to England fans. It’s all the more common to those who lived through 1990 and 1996, and while there is plenty of reason for optimism that the hoodoo will lift sooner rather than later, it’s hard to see it happening here. Phil Neville has said England need to stop being a semi-final team, but the truth is that, all things being equal, they’re slightly over-matched here. That’s no criticism – they just happen to be up against the best side in the world. It’s a fair bet to pick the USA at ⅚ with Unibet to win inside 90 minutes.
Stripped of all the fanfare and global attention, it’s true that the USWNT is just eleven women, beatable on a given day. It’s also true that the England side features some of the world’s best players. But the US have been over this hill time and again, and know what it takes to win in any circumstance, and that may well be what decides this game. Although England should give them a game, the smart money is on the Americans to win in 90 minutes and progress to their fifth final in eight tournaments.