By Simon Evans
LYON, France (Reuters) – The Netherlands face their first women’s World Cup semi-final when they play Sweden on Wednesday and striker Vivianne Miedema believes the pressure is finally off her team.
The Dutch are European champions and the resultant high expectations at home were felt by the players, who have talked about how the pressure influenced their play in the group stage.
Although the Netherlands won all their group games, their performances came in for some criticism but Miedema feels those displays reflected the tension because of expectations.
“We talked a lot about not playing our best football in the first couple of games here,” she said. “But I think the problem was that we didn’t really have the chance to properly enjoy ourselves on the pitch.
“The main feeling with people back home was, ‘Oh, those girls will just go to France to pick up that cup.’ As European Champions, of course you have higher expectations on you.
“But we as a team never saw it that way. We are very happy with what we’ve achieved so far, but for us, the journey is not over. We’ve got so close and we’ve finally got back into that flow that we had during the Euros. Now, all we want is to make it to that final,” she added.
Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Italy in the quarter-finals has totally changed the mood with the result also securing the Dutch their first Olympic qualification.
“I think the pressure is off now,” said Miedema, whose fine header against the Azzurre was her third goal of the tournament and helped ensure a place at Tokyo 2020.
That was harder to earn than expected, with only three places for European teams at the Olympics up for grabs and seven of the World Cup quarter-finalists coming from Europe.
“We came here to do better than four years ago, when we reached the last 16, and to get a ticket for the Olympic tournament in Tokyo next year.
“We never thought it would take reaching the semi-finals to be among the best three European teams, but that makes being there even more amazing. I think we surprised everyone by going this far, including ourselves,” she said.
Although Miedema is only 22, the tall centre-forward has scored 61 goals in 80 games for her country and will be a major threat to the Sweden defence.
However, the Swedes are in confident mood themselves after beating Germany 2-1 with their counter-attacking and direct style proving effective.
“Against Germany I think we played really well, we defended really well and were good on the counter-attack so I really feel it is a big, big chance for us to go the whole way and to be able to play a final,” said striker Sofia Jakobsson.
“Now we have to play a big semi, but if we play our game and at the level we played against Germany I think we have a good chance.”
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Ken Ferris)