The Netherlands have reached back-to-back major tournament finals and are on the verge of completing an incredible journey from World Cup debutants to women’s football giants after an extra-time victory over Sweden in last night’s semi-final, Florence Lloyd-Hughes writes.
It was a hot and humid evening in Lyon, one that fans, players and the media had come to expect given the relentless heatwave that has been sweeping across France.
Tuesday’s dramatic clash between England and USA was box-office football, but this fixture ended up being more like a straight to video B movie.
There were warning signs that this tie could be sluggish as both teams had played in sweltering heat in their quarter-finals ties and only had three days to recover before this game.
The game started slowly with both teams struggling to find rhythm. The Dutch’s famous Oranje band tried to energise the team and the crowd but the trumpets were falling on deaf ears.
It was in the 37th minute when the game really sprung to life. Swedish number nine Kosovare Asllani delivered an inviting corner which was flicked on to an awaiting Elin Rubensson at the edge of the box.
The ball bounced up and Rubensson tried to strike it towards goal, but it hit her team mate Lina Hurtig who quickly turned and tried to poke the ball home. Dutch goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal stuck a leg out and managed to deny the Swede from close range. It was an impressive save given that van Veenendaal probably could have fallen asleep in the circumstances of the first half.
Until that sudden burst of energy, it felt like most of the 50,000-strong crowd had been admiring the beautiful Lyon sunset and not paying much attention to matters on the pitch.
As the referee’s whistle signalled half time there was a collective sigh and a realisation that this game was definitely going to go to extra time.
In the second half, things didn’t really improve. Dutch star Lieke Martens, who has had a disappointing tournament, was pulled off on 46 minutes and the game fell flat again.
Ten painful minutes later, Sweden remembered they were playing for a place in a World Cup final.
Magdalena Eriksson’s corner was punched away by van Veenendaal but her parry fell straight to Asllani, who tried to loop the ball towards the top left-hand corner of the Dutch goal.
The shot was blocked by the chest of a Dutch defender but bounced to Sweden’s Nilla Fischer on the right side of the box. Fischer connected cleanly and her shot looked like it was gliding its way to the bottom corner, but van Veenendaal managed to get a hand to it and push it on to the post.
The goalkeeping masterclass continued. This time, a Netherlands corner delivered perfectly to Vivianne Miedema, a chance she’d been crying out for all game. She directed her header high and over Hedvig Lindahl but the Swedish goalkeeper somehow managed to get a hand to it and tip it on the bar. A spectacular save.
Miedema was gutted and so were the crowd, the breakthrough wasn’t going to come in 90 minutes. The final whistle went and about 5,000-10,000 people exited the stadium.
Another 30 minutes of football wasn’t the ideal scenario for the teams either, as the already favoured US team, who would have a day extra rest, awaited the winner.
Finally, after nearly 100 minutes of muggy football, Netherlands had a breakthrough.
Danielle van de Donk collected the ball and played a short pass to Miedema on the edge of the penalty area, she turned her defender and poked the ball towards Jackie Groenen who dribbled a few yards before firing the ball low and hard past Lindahl.
The Netherlands had persisted and got their reward, but the 30,000 left in the stadium and the millions watching at home that had stuck with this match hadn’t got the reward of a nail-biting penalty shootout.
It was relief. Relief for the Netherlands, relief for fans and probably a bit of solace for Sweden after hours of gruelling football.
Let’s hope Sunday’s final is a high-definition production rather than VHS quality.
Follow Florence on Twitter at @floydtweet