England faced Sweden in the 2022 Euros semi-final, and most predicted it would be a tight game.
Sweden are ranked second in the world behind the United States. They won bronze at the 2019 World Cup and silver at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Yet England played them off the park, beating the Swedes 4-0 in front of a record-breaking crowd at Bramall Lane in Sheffield.
Beth Mead, Lucy Bronze and Fran Kirby all got on the score sheet, but it was Manchester United forward Alessia Russo’s third goal of the four that was the highlight of a thrilling match.
In the 68th minute, it looked like Russo had missed a fantastic opportunity to put her side 3-0 up, with her shot from close range saved relatively easily by Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindahl.
But the missed sitter was just a ruse, a ploy to induce a false sense of security in Lindahl and set herself up for a Puskas contender.
Russo got the ball back, facing away from the goal and with two outfielders and the ‘keeper between her and the net.
It looked an impossible situation to score from. She then backheeled the rebound between the two Swedish defenders and through Lindahl’s legs at the near post and into the back of the net, sending fans at Bramall Lane into ecstasy.
How many times are we all watching this tonight? 🤯pic.twitter.com/Z5UHyBbb8Z
— Lionesses (@Lionesses) July 26, 2022
The backheel showed incredible cheek. What most players wouldn’t even attempt in training, she’d done in the semi-final of a European Championship. Russo really had no right even attempting that shot, let alone scoring it.
Just so we’re sure it really happened, we’re going to spell it out again: an England player scored a backheel nutmeg in the last four of a major tournament.
It was almost disrespectful. In fact, the skill really ought to be named after the 23-year-old at this point. Backheel nutmegs from now on? Doing a Russo.
Still, the striker was quite bashful about the goal when speaking about it post-match, partly because she didn’t actually see it go in.
“I could have made it a lot easier for myself if I’d scored the first [attempt],” she said.
“But yeah, it fell nicely, but I don’t remember too much about it, I just thought it was the quickest route to get it in the back of the net without having to turn. I was fortunate it went in. I didn’t really see it go in, so I don’t know how it went in but I just celebrated and I enjoyed the moment.”
— Lionesses (@Lionesses) July 26, 2022
Russo isn’t England’s starting striker, with manager Sarina Wiegman opting for veteran Ellen White in England’s starting XI.
But Russo has become the ultimate super sub in this tournament, as every single time she’s come off the bench, she’s made an instant impact.
She has the ability to immediately inject a ton of energy to the side while also bringing pace, skill, and phenomenal link-up play to the pitch. Her goal against Sweden is her fourth in the tournament, making her joint-second highest goalscorer, level with Germany’s Alexandra Popp.
Russo has become so important to the way England play that many have started to wonder why she hasn’t been starting.
“The improvisation is fantastic. When [Russo] came on, she instantly made an impact. She links play. I’m not sure what more she needs to do to start,” said Ian Wright.
“When you look at Ellen White’s contribution over the years, you can’t question it. But she hasn’t done enough in this tournament.
“This girl [Russo] is doing it. [But] I don’t think Wiegman will change it.”
Wiegman, who won this tournament with the Netherlands back in 2017, is known for not making changes to her starting XI unless she has to during tournament football. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t full of praise for Russo.
“You must have so much courage to do such an unpredictable and phenomenal thing like that. It was really nice to watch,” she said.
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Unless Wiegman pulls a complete 180 from her usual tactics as a manager, then Russo will likely start on the bench when England head to Wembley next week and face the winner of tonight’s match between Germany and France.
But Russo coming on early in the second half in all the games so far has worked wonders for this team.
England have by far been the most consistent and most dominant team in the competition and it has been down to Wiegman’s tactics and the timing of her substitutions.
Part of what makes England so scary is the lurking threat of White – her movement and her consistent press from the front. By the time Russo comes on, defenders are disoriented and fatigued and are often unable to contain the energetic forward.
Russo’s goal against Sweden was a perfect example.
So she may not start at Wembley, but regardless, she will be considered an incredibly important part of this England side, especially if they go on and win their first ever major trophy.
And hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.