For a team with a solid northern heritage, England is becoming quite fond of the south. While progression and the title of group winners was secured with such an emphatic win against Norway, it did ensure even before their meeting with Northern Ireland in Southampton they would be back on the south coast and back at the scene of that sensational 8–0 win on Wednesday night.
Who they will face will be decided on Saturday night when Spain takes on Denmark, with either one of the fancied favorites or the 2017 finalists heading home early. The ones fortunate enough to stay into next week’s heatwave will have to face a Lionesses side in the mood to take on anybody, with or without head coach Sarina Wiegman, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the day.
It took some time, but the floodgates opened once Fran Kirby curled home a superb effort five minutes before the break, and it was closely by followed by Beth Mead’s fifth of the tournament as she saw a deflected effort squirm past Jacqueline Burns, who had been excellent up until that point.
The two quick goals, which had been coming, right before the break dented what had been a more than spirited Northern Ireland performance up until that point, and it remained that way until the final whistle as they ended the tournament in front of a vocal traveling support.
Spurred on by their fans in one corner of St. Mary’s, head coach Kenny Shiels may well also wonder ‘What if?’ given Lauren Wade saw a hat trick of chances come and go as the forward constantly proved to be a problem for the England defense.
From the confides of her hotel room, Wiegman will have been worried at the ease of which Wade was able to get in behind her back four and test Mary Earps on several occasions, with more potent forwards unlikely to be as generous in the latter stages of the competition.
It never really looked like it was anything more than a fleeting chance here and there, though, as England soon asserted their dominance on proceedings. Whether it was the heroics of Burns, some superb blocks by her defense, or the generosity from the likes of Ellen White and Lucy Bronze in wasted chances, it felt like only a matter of time before the green wall faulted.
Whether a decision made by Wiegman or stand-in head coach Arjan Veurink, there was the familiar triple substitution once again and a trio of familiar substitutes, though this time earlier than normal as Alessia Russo, Ella Toone, and Alex Greenwood came on at the start of the second half.
Russo wasted no time in going about her business, heading home a dinked cross from Mead who added an assist to her growing credentials for not just golden boot, but potentially player of the tournament, after a neat one-two with Toone down the right.
The Man United pair were in the mood and it was just another five minutes before Russo turned and hammered home her second after her club teammate Toone found her through the middle, as England broke the record for most goals scored in a group stage of a European Championships.
As the crowd enjoyed a chorus of “It’s Coming Home” around the hour mark, there was a sense of prematurity to it, but also a sense of the stars were aligning, especially with other nations losing key players to either COVID-19 or injury, but doesn’t it always feel like the stars are aligning?
Only for them to shatter apart in some twisted agony.
Think Faye White, think Laura Bassett, think Steph Houghton.
While England look as good as anyone going forward, there is a certain sense they have not yet been truly tested. Austria caused them issues on occasion, as did Northern Ireland, while Norway was too much of a shambles at one end to even give either Caroline Graham Hansen or Ada Hegerberg a chance to ruffle any feathers.
Substitute Kelsie Burrows was unfortunate to see her attempt at a clearance loop over Burns for the fifth, but England were in no mood to be generous, with their new killer instinct under Wiegman on show once again as they cruised through the group stage with 14 goals, 0 conceded, and 3 wins.
Whether it be Spain or Denmark in Brighton on Wednesday night, it certainly won’t be a lack of confidence nor momentum which stops this England team.