Matildas fever has met its antidote: an England team with killer instinct | Women’s World Cup 2023

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The girl in the Sam Kerr face mask was weeping. No tears were actually visible. The cardboard surface itself remained impassive and structurally sound. But you could tell what was really going on from the way the chin quivered and wobbled, from the comforting mother’s arm draped around hunched shoulders. For Australia, the co-hosts and the stirring soul of this tournament, the party is over.

Then again, nobody ever reached a World Cup final without breaking a few hearts along the way. And on a crisp, cool Sydney night, England moved one step closer to a peak they have been trying and failing to scale for 30 years. Their 3-1 victory was not flawless, and nor was it entirely free of dread or drama. But it was nerveless and efficient in all the right places: a performance carved from the austere gospel of Sarina Wiegman, the brilliant Dutch coach who has now overseen the two greatest tournament showings in the history of England women’s football.

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The phoney war, the faux Ashes rivalry and the slightly tiresome jokes about cricket can be safely stowed away. The champions of Europe are a game away from becoming champions of the world.

And ultimately this was the difference between the two sides. Australia: proud and passionate, fuelled by an extraordinary wave of national fervour and the world’s greatest striker in Kerr, but fatally lacking in composure at the key moments. England: calm and dispassionate, clinical on the counterattack, relishing their role as spoilers and assassins. Of course you want a capacity crowd and the hand of history on your side. But on balance, you would probably rather have a functioning defence.

As Arsenal’s Alessia Russo administered the last rites in the 86th minute with England’s third goal, the wave of noise that had been consuming Stadium Australia since kick-off finally fell silent. Matildas fever – the deadly contagion that had been sweeping the nation for weeks, including parts of the population previously thought immune – had finally met its antidote. The national holiday promised by the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, can be called off. But for a country traditionally in thrall to the “big three” codes of rugby league, rugby union and Australian rules football, you sense that something elemental has changed here, the world’s sixth-largest country finally learning to love its biggest sport.

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Australia’s head coach Tony Gustavsson consoles Sam Kerr after defeat against England
Australia’s head coach Tony Gustavsson consoles Sam Kerr after defeat against England. Photograph: Alessandra Tarantino/AP

For England, these are battles that have already been fought and won. The final against Spain on Sunday will be the latest chapter in a story of evolution and growth that has already made the Lionesses one of our best-loved sporting teams. The game itself will be wildly different. Spain, with their technical skill and sophisticated passing patterns, will provide an entirely new challenge after the long punts and swirling crosses of Australia. England will have to endure long periods without the ball. But this is a team who thrive on their ability to adapt and endure, to weather the tough spells and meet fire with water.

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Here this was most evident in the period after Kerr’s equalising goal on the hour, a scintillating solo effort that threatened to blow the entire enterprise sky-high. England had been the better and smarter team for most of the game, taking the lead through Ella Toone and minimising Australia’s threat on the break, largely through a series of pre-emptive and increasingly vindictive tactical fouls. Kerr, making her first start of the tournament after recovering from injury, was herself the target of two spicy reducers in the first 10 minutes.

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But the greatest goalscorers only need a glimpse. As Kerr advanced at speed from her own half, Millie Bright dared not engage her, simply retreating and watching as Kerr lashed the ball in from 25 yards. If it felt like a moment of astral alignment for Australia, England simply adjusted their hair ties and went back to work. On the touchline Wiegman’s expression did not shift, looking as ever like a secondary school headteacher who has just spotted a piece of lewd graffiti on the wall of the girls’ toilets.

For even in their ecstasy Australia were tiring, emotionally as well as physically. A harmless long ball over the top was ruthlessly chased down by Lauren Hemp, taking advantage of Ellie Carpenter’s indecision and carving home from a tight angle. Going into Euro 2022, Hemp was reckoned to be one of this country’s brightest prospects but ended up playing only a peripheral role. Here, she has been the player everyone expected her to be last summer: brave and inventive on the ball, blessed with pace and quick feet and an impeccable sense of tempo.

Even now, as time leaked away, other futures fleetingly presented themselves. Kerr put a glancing header over the bar. Jess Carter scraped the ball away just as Emily van Egmond was about to tuck it into an empty England net. With four minutes left Kerr missed a simple volley from six yards. The shock seemed to swallow Australia’s greatest footballer whole. Her eyes blazed white with trauma; her mouth hung open and gasped for air. It was the moment a whole continent realised the game was up.

The crowd booed as England saw out their win, unapologetically pausing over their goalkicks, brazenly booting the ball out of play, shielding it in the corner. This is after all still a relatively young footballing public, still largely unschooled in the more nefarious arts of the game, still largely unacquainted with the way this game can build your hopes and topple them in an instant.

These are the lessons that England have learned the hard way. In 2015 Mark Sampson’s side were denied by Japan with a 92nd-minute own goal in the semi-final. Four years later Phil Neville’s team reached the same stage but were held at bay by USA. Over time, with the help of significant investment and elite coaching, they have learned to navigate the treacherous currents and fickle fortunes of tournament football, learned when to breathe life into a game and when to kill it. Above all, they have learned perhaps the most important truth of all about elite sport: that the party only really begins at the end.

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