However much of a shock seeing Les Bleues lead a usually solid Italian side 5–0 was on Sunday night, what occurred 24 hours later under the beating south coast sun was even more so.
England was sublime, each and every player, but whatever Norway’s plan was, it was the wrong one. The blur of the first half was so that scorers became irrelevant, recalling those who did score, or assisted, was almost impossible, such was the stunned euphoria around Brighton’s AMEX Stadium, and indeed, the rest of the country.
Against main group rivals Norway.
It was fanciful. Unfathomable. Fictional. But the beauty of football is that no matter how implausible something seems, the reality in front of your eyes says otherwise.
Let’s not lie, England will have stiffer tests. To some extent, it wasn’t a shock. Norway’s combination of players out of position across the entire back four and a lack of defensive midfielder was a “bold” move from Martin Sjögren, and one that played beautifully into the strengths of the Lionesses, who tore into their opposition.
While the first goal came in dubious circumstances, the reality of what followed suggests it would have made little difference had VAR intervened to overturn the penalty awarded to Ellen White.
The confidence in which Georgia Stanway smashed away her penalty into the top corner set the tone for what followed. Lauren Hemp. Ellen White. Beth Mead. Beth Mead. Ellen White.
That was the order, not that in many ways it mattered. White, questioned so much in the buildup to the tournament, answered her critics — not just with her goals but her all-around play was classic Ellen White.
Beth Mead. Sensational. A player who may not even have been here had the tournament taken place as scheduled 12 months ago, and a player who looks like she has an agenda against the whole world every time she steps on a football pitch at the moment. Or perhaps just Norway, given it was one of their all-time greats who left Mead out of the Team GB squad 12 months ago, one who may well have watched on and wondered, “What if?”
Lauren Hemp’s biggest performance in a big game for England so far. The front three simply did what they’d threatened to do from the opening minutes, and Sjögren expecting Norway’s defense of few defenders didn’t cope.
Maria Thorisdottir’s night went from bad to bad to worse, while Tuva Hansen and makeshift defender Julie Blakstad were consistently punished by Mead and Hemp.
Such was England’s attacking dominance, it was hard to judge any other player on the pitch due to the lack of work they had to do at the other end of the pitch.
Lucy Bronze, Millie Bright, Leah Williamson, and Rachel Daly could not have dreamt they’d remain so untroubled against Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen. Not to the detriment of their talents, but they simply never had the chance to make an impact.
You had to feel for Guro Bergsvand, sent on at 6–0 at the break, simply just to ensure things got no worse.
As happened with France a night earlier, the pace understandably slowed after the break as the adrenaline, and likely the heat, took its toll. Norway had nothing to give and England had no reason to exert themselves further with another game soon to come against Northern Ireland on Friday.
There were further moments to savor, though. Russo scored her first major tournament goal, shrugging off Bergsvand in the box to head home Lucy Bronze’s looping cross, making history as England became the first team to score seven goals in a European Championship match.
Never could anyone have imagined Sjögren withdrawing Hegerberg and Graham Hansen with 15 minutes to go, a scenario only foreseeable when a team is in a commanding position, but the head coach looked almost apologetic as he put a sympathetic arm around both as they trudged off the pitch. Sorry can so often be the hardest word.
Mead had the final say, which was apt, given she has been England’s standout player over 12 months, now having not just surpassed, but demolished, the record for most goals in a year for her country with her hat-trick goal.
Given England has now guaranteed themselves top spot and a return to Brighton for what will be a mouthwatering quarterfinal, attention turns to Friday and what Wiegman will do against Northern Ireland.
The 2017 champion is rarely one for wholesale changes, but there must be a temptation to mirror what Mark Sampson did at the last Euros in 2017 and give all her key players a night off with one of Germany or Spain lurking around the corner.
When these sides last met in European competition 22 years ago, Norway won 8–0 in a Euro 2001 qualifier.
We’ll call it even.
“It was a great win. The way we played, we kept playing the way we did in the second half despite being up 6-0. We still kept moving the ball, kept doing what we were doing, I’m happy with the performance of the whole team.
“It becomes a little easier when you are 2-0 up very quickly. They had a hard time getting pressure on the ball and we just had so much space to get more chances and more goals. We saw after the game, every player was happy.
“You expect a very competitive match because Norway has a good squad, their front line is really good. We kept them away from our goal and that was nice to see. But going in at half-time, I was thinking ‘what is happening?!’
“I was surprised they didn’t try to put more pressure on us. They changed second half, but we just played our game and tried to exploit spaces in the Norwegian team. They went five at the back, but we still got a lot of space, we kept doing really well.
“We will ask ourselves the question tomorrow [about Friday]. We have some time to think about those things and go from there.”
“It’s not easy to put into words. Everyone feels devastated about the way we looked tonight. I really, really feel terrible for the players, to be beaten 8-0 in a game we had been looking forward to. We had a plan, I think we played well the first 10 minutes, but after that it was more or less horrible to be honest.
“England played very well, they made it hard for us. We knew they would come out better than they did against Austria, but we made it too easy for them, losing the ball in dangerous places. We didn’t get into all those duels we were talking about and we made some very bad mistakes, but you make mistakes when you play good teams. England were very good, but we weren’t.
“The only comfort is we have everything in our own hands. It is going to be easy to forget it, but it’s the responsibility of me and the coaching staff and the players to regroup, to come together, we are a strong team with great team spirit. If there’s any group that will be able to do it, it is this group of players. We have to forget this, it’s not going to be easy, but we have to do it and try to move on.
“I will always take responsibility for the results and I will this time. Maybe we should have come out in a different way, but I thought we had a good start. We wanted to play forward, in behind the England back four and we did for the first 10 minutes. We also talked about where England wanted to attack and we couldn’t close that space down.