By Simon Evans
LE HAVRE, France (Reuters) – England are heading to Lyon for a women’s World Cup semi-final after their 3-0 win over Norway on Thursday and there is no hiding their conviction that they have a real chance of claiming their first title.
With over seven million watching the game back home, including on a big screen at the annual Glastonbury music festival, the ‘Lionesses’ have clearly connected with the English public.
Several thousand England supporters made the trip to Normandy and ended a memorable night with the team celebrating in front of them at the final whistle.
Their talent has never been in doubt but any questions over whether Phil Neville’s side had the mettle for the high pressure knockout stages were answered by a confident display at the Stade Oceane.
England have been here before.
They reached the last four in 2015 before coming unstuck against Japan, and also reached the semis of Euro 2017 before losing to the Netherlands, and those bitter memories are clearly scorched in their minds.
“We want to go one better – we have been to two semi-finals now and we don’t want to feel that hurt again,” said midfielder Fran Kirby, who four years ago sat on the bench watching as an injury time own goal wrecked England’s hopes in Canada.
England will face the winner of Friday’s quarter-final in Paris between the United States and France.
Jill Scott, who has been at the heart of England’s side for the last 13 years, accepts that, given their record in the last two major tournaments, they are where many expected them to be.
“We knew that a semi-final was kind of what the fans expected given we got that far last time. But we want to keep on winning, we said we didn’t want to go home,” Scott told reporters as dejected Norwegian players trudged past.
“It is a harsh reality, sometimes, that if you lose it is home-time, right away, the next day – we didn’t want that,” she added.
For Neville, there was never any doubt his players had the right mix of confidence and determination heading into Thursday’s game — both from the starters and those on the bench.
“We keep saying we are having fun and they are playing like it. I knew we were going to win this game because of the look in their eyes and the 11 that didn’t play were driving it,” said Neville.
The former Manchester United defender was brought in to get England a step beyond the last four. Their next opponents, France or the United States, will be a step up from what they have faced so far.
“We want to come home with that World Cup,” he said. “I keep thinking to myself, ‘stop saying it’, but we can’t hide away from the fact something’s happening. We cannot wait for Tuesday.
“You’ve got the best team in the world (United States) and you’ve got probably the second favourites in France, who have the support and backing of the home nation,” he said.
“But my players want the biggest games. I want the biggest games and this will be the biggest game of the World Cup.
“The atmosphere and occasion at the semi-final will be incredible. The players have proved the bigger the occasion, the better we are.”
The other two quarter-finals, both on Saturday, see Italy up against the Netherlands and Germany take on Sweden.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)