England storm into Women's World Cup semis with power and pride
LE HAVRE, France -- England stormed into the semifinals of the Women's World Cup thanks to their best performance of the tournament as they dispatched Norway 3-0 on Thursday.
The Lionesses were dominant throughout the first half and went into the break up 2-0 thanks to Jill Scott's third-minute goal and Ellen White's fifth strike of this World Cup. They could have had five at the break but for missed opportunities with Nikita Parris firing over, White hitting the post and Scott unable to convert a looping far-post cross.
They had more dominant spells in the second half, with the outstanding Lucy Bronze's thunderbolt giving them a 3-0 lead, but there were again concerns at the back as Norway generated a number of good chances but were unable to convert, with captain Steph Houghton clearing one shot off the line and Karen Bardsley standing equal to other shots. England could have had a fourth late on, but Parris' penalty -- for a foul on Houghton -- was well saved by Ingrid Hjelmseth.
Yet this was England's best performance of the World Cup to date, and they now march into the final four, where they will face either the USA or France in Lyon.
Here are five takeaways from England's win in Le Havre:
Lucy Bronze again shows her unrivaled class
If there was a Ballon D'Or to award now, Bronze would be in with a shout of winning the whole thing. She was magnificent against Norway, constantly tormenting their makeshift left-back in Kristine Minde, and combining seamlessly with Parris again, just like they did against Scotland in their opener.
Bronze popped up for England's third goal, a beautifully struck one-time shot on the edge of the penalty area from a free kick (they worked on it only Thursday morning), reminiscent of her strike against Canada at this stage in 2015. Her distribution was world-class, but factor in her work rate and she becomes of the most complete players in the game. England manager Phil Neville has previously used her in midfield, and don't rule out him trying this again if they come up against the U.S. in the semifinals as it worked well in their SheBelieves Cup match, but the team thrives off her crossing and energy down that right-hand side.
She also did her part in defense, at one point mopping up a looping through ball that bounced over Houghton and then getting ahead of Isabell Herlovsen to prevent a clear goal-scoring opportunity.
Norway never found their stride
Norway were brilliant against Australia, and could have beaten France in the group stages. But they found it hard to play to their strengths against England. The outstanding duo of Barcelona-bound Caroline Graham Hansen and Chelsea's Guro Reiten struggled to get the same amount of time and influence on the ball as they had enjoyed in their recent matches. Hansen, who had a brilliant tournament, lost her ruthless streak while Reiten found it hard up against Bronze. Norway had their chances -- they had a great spell around the 60-minute mark -- but never managed to find their cutting edge.
Steph Houghton is part machine
In the dying moments of England's 3-0 round-of-16 win over Cameroon, Houghton was victim of a horrendous tackle, a late hit to her ankle, and was a major doubt for Thursday's match. Just a day prior, Neville said she and Millie Bright, England's two first-choice defenders, were both struggling.
But in the humidity of Le Havre, Houghton was again outstanding. She has played every minute of this World Cup and is a fantastic leader, but also has the organizational skills and foresight to rival any competitor in this tournament. There was a moment in the second half when she cleared a Norwegian shot off the line, and as she stormed forward, she also drew the foul for the penalty. She is some player.
Phil Neville gets his team selection spot on
Neville is rather fond of squad rotation. He has chopped and changed from match to match, but against Norway he made just one change: bringing in Demi Stokes for Alex Greenwood. It was a fantastic call, with Stokes nullifying the threat of Hansen and also combining nicely first with Toni Duggan and then Beth Mead. Neville finds it amusing how much the media talk about his liking for rotation, but making just one change suggests -- despite the form of Georgia Stanway, Mead, Greenwood et al -- he has settled on his best XI. Expect to see minimal changes for England's semifinal against the USA or France.
It's feeling like 2018 all over again
Before the tournament started, Neville said he wanted the country to unite behind the Lionesses like it did for the men's team in last year's World Cup. The country went berserk, with department stores selling out of Gareth Southgate's waistcoat and the England fans' version of the Atomic Kitten song "Whole Again" ringing out the country over. Then there was "Three Lions" being sung over and over again.
In Le Havre, there was the same carnival spirit. The band played the songs, and England marched into the final four to the sound of the brass band and riding the wave of a country's dreams of World Cup success.