England’s U17s progressed to the semi-finals of the European Championships thanks to a comfortable 3-1 victory over Sweden. In front of an enthusiastic crowd at the Tartu Tamme Staadion, Arsenal’s Michelle Agyemang continued her strong scoring form with a brace. Leicester’s Ava Baker added a third to send Mo Marley’s side through to the knockouts with one game to spare.
Marley was full of praise for her young side as they overcame a tricky first half. “It’s amazing”, she said. “I’ve made references to these girls being together for the last two years and really working hard. I’m just privileged to be able to play a small part and experience it and watch them shine over the last two games. They’re committed to who they are and how they’re going to play.”
There is real excitement around this group of Young Lionesses who are unbeaten across this European campaign. Agyemang and Baker are perhaps the more well-known having featured at points for their respective clubs this season, but there is potential all over the pitch. It was this strength in depth that allowed Marley to make three changes from the 2-1 opening win against Poland at the weekend. With Mari Ward suspended, and Lola Brown and Ria Bose rested, Milly Round, Sophie Harwood and Erica Parkinson came into the line-up.
It was a slow start by this team’s standards as they struggled to control possession with Sweden’s intensity and an uneven surface. Their opponents came out of the blocks quickly, knowing they had to win to remain in the tournament. Ida Björnberg was lively early on, and Katie Reid had to remain alert to intercept.
With Agyemang in your side, however, there will always be opportunities. Her vision and technical abilities are beyond her 17 years, possessing both strong hold-up play and an almost telepathic knack of finding the back of the net. She was at the heart of England’s first chance, played through by Laila Harbert and setting up Baker to have a shot cleared off the line.
Minutes later, the Young Lionesses were ahead. Harbert spotted the run of Harwood down the left, picking the full back out with an “eye of the needle” pass. A pinpoint cross came in and with Agyemang stepping off her defender, there was only going to be one outcome.
Rather than denting Sweden’s confidence, conceding only seemed to give them a boost. England’s play was scrappy, and the Swedes looked to capitalise. Their main threat came down the right and the speed of their full back, Smilla Holmberg. The warning came when one of her sweetly struck crosses dipped over Sophia Poor and ricocheted off the post into the goalkeeper’s grateful arms. The next one counted. It was the same situation, but this time Reid stretched out a leg, aware of the lurking Felicia Schröder, and unwittingly diverted the ball into her own net.
A half-time “sense check”, as Marley put it, was needed and England re-emerged with a clear increase in energy. “We said that in the second half, we were going to be more us – play the way we know and do what we do and up our standards,” remarked their head coach. “That’s all it needed – a small change for them to reflect and go back to what it is that they’ve really been impressive with this whole season.”
Their pressing was more in sync, their passes crisper, and they looked more like the team that has performed so strongly. They got their rewards within four minutes of the restart when Parkinson spotted the run of Agyemang. Driving on goal, the forward coolly dinked a shot past the onrushing Julia Cavander to bring up her fourth of the campaign.
England’s attack was now reaching top gear. They had a goal disallowed minutes later after a great cut-back from the by-line by Baker, but the ball was adjudged to have gone out of play. With her goal under pressure, Cavander came up with an important double save – first at point-blank range to deny Agyemang before recovering to hold the rebound effort from Baker. Conversely, Sweden’s chances were limited – Nova Rolfsson had the only one of note, racing past Zara Shaw only to be denied by an alert Poor.
With just under 20 minutes left to play, the Young Lionesses made sure of the victory. Substitute Ria Bose went on a mazy driving run from right back to find herself at the top of the box. Baker was there to receive the lay off and practically caress the ball round the defender and outstretched Cavander.
It was another victory and another learning experience in the development of this group, experiencing their first major tournament. Playing in front of a crowd, meeting different opposition, doing post-match media, taking selfies with fans – these are all some of the stepping stones in their young careers. Marley, who has been here many times before, knows how important this is going forward. “They’ve had some fantastic games and they’ve played some brilliant football,” she said. “But we all know, when it gets to major tournaments, it can be quite tricky and it’s not always going to go your way.”
“I think that’s the key thing that they’ve really adapted to. They’re responding to the staff behind where I am. They’re responding to making positive change in and around training, and then in and around the games. They’re so adaptable, it’s brilliant.”
France await on Saturday in another challenge for the Young Lionesses as the group stage comes to a close. Both have won their first two games and, therefore, progress to the semi-final but all eyes will be on who will take top spot in Group B. Win, and you potentially avoid the favourites Spain, securing an ever so slightly simpler route to the final.