Ella Toone’s first-half goal gave England a deserved lead, which was later canceled out by Australia superstar Sam Kerr’s long-range stunner in the second half.
But Ellie Carpenter’s error in defense allowed Lauren Hemp to restore England’s lead, before Alessia Russo ended Australia’s hopes with a goal on the counterattack as the Matildas went in search of a late equalizer.
The pain and heartbreak of defeat was etched onto the Australian players’ faces, with many of them reduced to tears as they applauded their way around Sydney’s Stadium Australia to thank the fans for their unwavering support.
Led by the inimitable Kerr, Australia had real hopes of becoming just the second host nation ever to win a Women’s World Cup.
Though the disappointment will no doubt linger for some time, when the dust settles the team will be able to truly appreciate the impact of their performances on women’s football in the country, with record ticket sales, attendances and TV viewing figures coming to define this tournament.
England, meanwhile, is beginning to exert itself as the dominant force in international women’s football under head coach Sarina Wiegman.
Her team has been criticized at times at this World Cup for its style of play but after winning the European Championships last summer, this is now the second consecutive major tournament in which England has reached the final.
Wiegman’s incredible record in charge of the Lionesses now stands at just one defeat – a friendly against Australia – in 38 games, while she is now the first coach to take two different teams to the Women’s World Cup final after also leading the Netherlands there in 2019.
“The one thing I’ve always wanted is to make the final of the World Cup and after coming close twice, I can’t put this into words,” England defender Lucy Bronze told the BBC after the match.
“We played the game how we wanted to; we were determined, resilient. We knew the crowd was going to be crazy tonight, [Wiegman spoke about] silencing them and I feel like we did that with the third goal.
“We all dreamed about being in the final and all our family and friends stayed here until the final because they believed in us. It’s been amazing to play Australia in Australia, they’ve had a fantastic tournament.”
England’s fast start
After a rousing rendition of the Australian national anthem – “Advance Australia Fair” – the 75,784 capacity crowd inside Stadium Australia reached fever pitch within a matter of minutes.
Australia’s players were snapping into tackles, which were greeted by approving roars from the stands, while every promising pass forward was met with an expectant swell of noise from the sellout crowd.
England did well to block out the frenzied atmosphere early on as Alex Greenwood carved out the first chance of the game with an inch-perfect pass over the top to Georgia Stanway, but Mackenzie Arnold stood tall in the Australia goal to deny the Bayern Munich midfielder.
England has been well below its best at this World Cup, laboring through the knockout stages with hard-fought wins against underdogs Nigeria and Colombia, but already the team was showing considerable improvements against Australia.
The Lionesses totally dominated the opening half an hour in Sydney, with Australia struggling in particular to get to grips with the movement of Russo and Hemp in England’s forward line.
England soon got the breakthrough its early pressure merited. Hemp and Russo were again involved, exchanging passing on the left of the penalty area before the latter prodded the ball into the path of Toone.
The Manchester United midfielder ran onto the ball without breaking stride and struck a sumptuous effort with the outside of her boot that swerved into the top corner.
Arnold made a attempt to dive for the ball but it’s likely even two goalkeepers in the Australia goal couldn’t have prevented Toone’s effort.
The atmosphere inside Stadium Australia had been gradually dissipating as England increasingly established a stranglehold on the game in the first half, but Toone’s goal had now stunned the crowd into silence – save for the pockets of England fans dotted around the stands.
It was a hugely impressive opening 45 minutes for Wiegman’s side and by some distance the best football it had played so far at the 2023 tournament.
Australia fights back
Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson, who so often cuts a jovial figure, evidently had some choice words for his players at the interval. Australia emerged for the second period with an intensity and vigor it was previously sorely lacking, causing England more trouble in the opening five minutes than in the whole of the first half.
Despite the improvement, Australia was still unable to create any chances of note and England continued to pose a threat as Millie Bright headed just wide from a corner.
But that all changed when Kerr, Australia’s talisman and the face of this World Cup, produced a moment of magic befitting of her ‘Wizard of Oz’ moniker.
The Chelsea striker picked up the ball on the half-way line and drove towards goal, before unleashing a ferocious strike from more than 30 yards out that dipped over the outstretched arm of Mary Earps and into the top corner.
Stadium Australia erupted with a mixture of joy and relief, a roar no doubt emulated all across the country.
However, Australia’s joy was short-lived as Carpenter’s calamitous error in the Australia defense gifted England the lead just eight minutes later.
The Lyon defender got her legs in a tangle when trying to clear a simple long pass over the defense, allowing Hemp to pounce and steer the ball past Arnold and into the bottom corner.
The team – and the crowd – appeared stunned. After working so hard to get back into the game, the players were once again up against it and staring a tournament exit in the face.
Chances continued to come and go – Kerr missed two glorious opportunities, while Earps made a smart save from Cortnee Vine – but still Australia was unable to find an equalizer for a second time as the clock ticked towards 90 minutes.
With just four minutes of regulation time remaining, England crushed any lingering hope that Australia had of making a comeback. It was fitting, too, that both Hemp and Russo – Australia’s tormenters in Sydney – were involved again.
Hemp this time turned provider, reversing a pass into the path of Russo who drilled the ball low past Arnold to break Australian hearts.
England has now well and truly banished the demons of its last two World Cup semifinal defeats and has the chance to create history once again in Sunday’s showpiece final against Spain.