England entered the World Cup knockout stages still waiting to look like the dominant team it had hoped it could be. Sure, England had yet to lose a game — an accomplishment during this chaotic tournament — but so far its performances had seemed a few rungs short of the level required to accomplish its goals: to reach its first final, to lift the World Cup trophy for the first time.
England had arrived in Australia last month without three of the country’s best players, all ruled out because of serious knee injuries. Another star was hurt in the group stage and missed a game and a half. Then the Lionesses lost their best player at this World Cup, the young midfielder Lauren James, to a suspension after she was sent off for stamping on a Nigerian player in the round of 16.
But on Saturday night, in front of a Sydney crowd that presented yet another hurdle by favoring the upstart Colombians as the host nation’s preferred next opponent, England found a way forward again.
Overcoming an early goal with one of their own just before halftime, the Lionesses delivered the kind of performance they had been saying was just around the corner, beating Colombia, 2-1, to advance to the semifinals for the second straight World Cup.
There, England will face Australia, which hours earlier had claimed its place by winning an extended penalty shootout against France up the coast in Brisbane.
“It’s exciting,” forward Alessia Russo said. “You want to play against the best teams.”
Russo scored the winner in the 63rd minute, a right-footed finish off an assist from midfielder Georgia Stanway during a momentary lapse by Colombia’s defense that sent her in alone.
The stands were late to fill up at the start of the match, as many of the spectators appeared to be lingering outside, part of a raucous crowd in Cathy Freeman Park watching Australia advance on an outdoor viewing screen. But when they did, it was clear the crowd heavily favored the Colombians, against all odds the last team from the Americas still standing.
Their supporters erupted when Colombia midfielder Leicy Santos opened the scoring from the right side of the penalty area in the 44th minute, the ball arcing just over the outstretched right glove of England goalkeeper Mary Earps, who had surrendered only one other goal all tournament. England’s Lauren Hemp evened the score seconds before halftime, pouncing on a free rebound after Colombia’s goalkeeper fumbled the ball only steps from her goal line.
England, the reigning European champion and a World Cup semifinalist four years ago in France, entered this tournament as a top contender. But apart from a 6-1 win against China in the group stage, England had struggled on offense, relying instead on Earps and a veteran defense. England scored single goals in its other two wins in the group stage, against Haiti and Denmark, and none at all in its round-of-16 win over Nigeria, which was settled in a penalty-kick shootout after 120 scoreless minutes.
Two goals against Colombia will not answer all of those questions for England, but the Lionesses turned in a far stronger showing than they had in the previous round.
“I think we’ve had to dig deep from the first game,” Russo said. “We can always improve, but we’re in the semifinals.”
England will face an even taller task in the next round, and it will again be without James, whose two-game ban means she will miss the semifinal, too. But after England passed its toughest test yet, the message Earps had delivered on the eve of the game somehow felt prescient.
“I really believe the best is yet to come,” Earps had said. “There is so much talent in the group, and so many more levels that we can go.”
Jenny Vrentas is a sports reporter, working on enterprise and investigations. Prior to joining The Times she was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, covering the N.F.L. More about Jenny Vrentas
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