The Dutch had beaten the Swedes in both the 2017 quarterfinal and the 2019 World Cup semifinal. But, since their talismanic coach Sarina Wiegman went to England, there had been questions over whether Mark Parsons could lure the same slick game out of his side as she had in 2017.
Sweden, meanwhile, had a point to prove not only against Netherlands but to themselves as they look to finally win their first major medal since their win in the inaugural Euros.
“For me it’s a bit of extra fuel; I desire a little revenge. I want a good result against the Netherlands for many different reasons, and it adds a little bit of fuel to the fire,” Sweden’s Magdalena Eriksson said of the matchup before the tournament started.
And while the game at Bramhall Lane ended in a 1-1 draw, Sweden came out the brighter of the two sides in the first half. They weren’t exactly hammering down the door of Netherlands’ goal but they were holding the ball well and pushing. A clash of heads in the penalty box around the 20 minute mark forced Netherlands into an early change as Sari van Veenendaal indicated a few moments later that she couldn’t continue.
The veteran goalkeeper was included in the 2017 tournament’s “Best XI” and won the Goalkeeper of the Tournament award at the World Cup. She hasn’t had the best of runs into this tournament but she is still Netherlands most experienced option with her replacement Daphne Van Domselaar only having one senior cap before Saturday.
Netherlands’ defensive woes were further compounded when Aniek Nouwen was forced off towards the end of the first half.
With Sweden already a goal to the better, it felt like Peter Gerhardsson’s side were primed to push on. They still had star player Stina Blackstenius on the bench to bring on if they needed and young up-and-comer Hanna Bennison too. It was ironic too that with the firepower they have, it was defender Jonna Andersson who got the goal. Although not totally outside of Sweden’s remit, with five defenders contributed to 10 of their 40 goals in qualifying. They had managed to keep Vivianne Miedema — Netherlands all-time top scorer — quiet and while possession was evenly split between the two, it felt like Sweden were doing more with the ball.
But it was the same old story for Sweden in the second half. Despite having the upper hand and going into the game as the team on the better run, they dropped off. Miedema dropped deeper and found great success down the left side against Amanda Ilestadt. Purists often complain when Miedema drops back in that way, preferring her in a more traditional striker role but she loves the space it gives her and it was clearly an area she worked out she could target as it was one of these runs that set Netherlands up for their equaliser.
Despite bringing Blackstenius and Bennison on, Sweden seemed more timid than they had been in the first half. They did trouble the Sweden goal but Van Domselaar put in a stellar performance for her second ever cap, denying the shots that did come her way with a confidence that belied her experience.
It was clear after the game too that Netherlands knew they had turned things around while Sweden were left disappointed. Parsons admitted that the first 20 minutes and losing such key players had taken its toll on them.
“The first half, I think it was tough but we got some good moments when we played possession football,” he said. “The spaces were too big which meant Viv and others had to do more running.
“When you lose a captain and a centreback, the emotions can be all over the place but everyone stayed calm.”
“Calm” is probably the perfect word to describe Netherlands’ response to their early misfortune. When asked what he said to his players at halftime, Parsons joking said: “I just asked Viv her thoughts and went from there.”
But it was Miedema — who took the captain’s armband off Van Veenendaal when she came off — that stepped up in the second half and led her team to that precious point. Her performance earned her player of the match and it was easy to see how vocal and instrumental she was to the team on the pitch.
“If you look at our first 15, 20 minutes I think we can be extremely proud that we got a point,” she said after the game.
“[I’m] so pleased. In the first half we had a lot of contact on the pitch. Going in at halftime there was a lot of emotions. You just get together.”
The relief that was palpable off Parsons and Miedema was a direct comparison to the clear disappointment of Gerhardsson.
“I’m somewhere between,” he said when asked if he felt like his side had left a win out on the pitch.
“Feeling is always disappointment when you don’t win a game.
“You want to win a game because that is what you’re preparing for.”
The resilience of this Netherlands side had been questioned in the lead up to the tournament, especially after they conceded five against hosts England in a friendly just weeks out from the competition but this game against tournament favourites Sweden was a lesson in resilience and mental strength.
They cast off some of the demons that had haunted them and showed that they can turn up while Sweden are still left wondering are they going to be standing with a losers medal — or less — once again. If they want to make it all the way, they are going to need to find more of that fire Eriksson talked about before the tournament and use it to catapult themselves above all their previous failures.