This is how England’s World Cup ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper. For all the record viewing figures broken back home Phil Neville will know that this team have fallen short. From the outset he has had them down as World Cup winners - here, despite their improved second-half performance, they could not even match their feats of four years ago.
Invariably third-place play-offs feel not so much the wedding of the year - that will come on Sunday - but a slightly perfunctory birthday party, all deflated balloons and decrepit clowns in the corner and everyone periodically checking their watches. Fifa openly admitted last week that choosing Nice as a host venue might have been a mistake given there is so little appetite for football in France’s fifth city compared to, for instance, Lyon.
In many ways this crowd made the point for them. The Stade de Nice is sunken into a hillside near the river Var and the legions of empty, sunbleached seats did not help shift the general feel of ‘the morning after the night before’. One wedge that was so empty that one boy was able to spend chunks of the first half clambering over scores of seats like a red and white climbing frame.
Neville had warned that this game would belong to whichever side had shrugged off the hangover of their semi-final defeats the quickest. It looked like it might be England in those opening two minutes when Fran Kirby hared into the Sweden box from deep into her own half and laid off to Beth Mead to fire a low shot straight at Hedvig Lindahl, the Chelsea goalkeeper. Yet barely sixty seconds later Abbie McManus scrambled a hash of a delivery to Carly Telford and England, as they so often do, looked set to come undone by the same principles, of playing out from the back, that so often make them irresistible.
That short spell embodied the first half performance that killed England. Here, they died as they have lived: at times sublime, at times wobbling, a defence to be watched through latticed fingers and alongside a chorus of winces, a tightrope walker usually artful but always one misstep away from falling.
They were dominant in the second half - Jade Moore hitting the post from the 1 v 1 - but for those first twenty minutes they were scythed and scissored mercilessly by a Sweden team that beat them 2-0 in a friendly at Rotherham in November last year and are rapidly becoming Neville’s kryptonite. Given the old adage that a manager knows his own position best it is ironic in the extreme that a hallmark of Neville’s England side is that its defence persistently look so porous.
For Sweden’s opener Fridolina Rolfo - with Houghton temporarily off the field for a head injury - arced a cross into empty space from wide left and Alex Greenwood, under little pressure, flicked the clearance into the path of Kosovare Asllani to drive home her third goal in seven. England’s goalkeeper Carly Telford was slow to react but could have reasonably wondered why the threat was not snuffed out much earlier.
They returned the better team after the break and Bronze could have forced added time had her late volley not been headed off the line by Nila Fischer. They benefited from the introduction of Jodie Taylor’s menace down the left, and Karen Carney and Bronze’s runs from wide. Jade Moore smacked the post from a one on one but by that point they had left themselves with too much to do and once or twice their opponents still came close.
Eleven minutes after their first Sweden had doubled their lead, Houghton’s defensive header falling to Sofia Jakobsson. No one watched the return pass as the fleet-footed Jakobsson’s one-two with Stina Blackstenius carved open space for the former to finish without challenge. Five minutes earlier Jakobsson had hit the post. If 11 million tuned in to Tuesday’s primetime slot against the US there were spells of this that were so traumatic they should have moved it to after the watershed.
Thereafter England got themselves in gear. You could not fault their workrate and there were instances of the zipping and gliding that had tortured Scotland and Norway weeks earlier. Kirby slipped in Beth Mead to skew a shot at Lindahl. After latching on to Jill Scott’s pinpoint delivery Fran Kirby did not so much beat Linda Sembrant’s feeble challenge as ignore it completely, crowning her whippet-like run with an angled finish low into the bottom corner.
Sweden knew they had a game on their hands, and when Ellen White brought down Mead’s delivery, sliding into the finish to get better of Sembrant, most likely feared they were on level terms. Yet England, for the third time this tournament, found their celebrations stunted and their goal disallowed by VAR.
Full time: England 1 Sweden 2
That's it! England, four years after taking third place, will now have to settle for fourth. That lacklustre opening half-hour told in the end and, despite a Fran Kirby-led resurgence, they had too much to do against this Sweden defence.
Karen Carney bows out on a deflating note, but this will still be regarded as positive tournament for Phil Neville and his squad. Alternatively...
49 min - England 1 Sweden 2
Greenwood gets the ball in space on the left, but he ambitious attempt at a whipped cross from deep meets little interest in the box. Meanwhile, Jodie Taylor is being readied for England from the bench...and it's Beth Mead who goes off. Ellen White's Golden Boot dream is still alive...
Half time: England 1 Sweden 2
The first half ends with a mix-up between Houghton and Telford, which allows Stina Blackstenius to sneak in and lift the ball over the keeper...and on to the roof of the net.
For half an hour, England were dreadful: a living, breathing embodiment of a third place playoff. Two goals down, Frank Kirby finally located the scruff of the game's neck, breezing into the Swedish box to halve the deficit.
Ellen White then thought she was making history - edging ahead of Alex Morgan in the race for the Golden Boot, becoming England's best-ever World Cup goalscorer at a single tournament - but VAR intervened, as it so often does.
Still, it hasn't been boring.
GOAL! No, disallowed!
HELLO! THAT is some serious centre-forward play. The ball is chipped into Ellen White, closely marked by Linda Sembrant, but she shrugs off her marker, finds the angle and slides the ball underneath the keeper...
...but VAR is having a look...
And White is adjudged to have handballed it on the way through. She is aghast.
GOAL! England 0 Sweden 2 (Jakobsson, 22 min)
What a finish! England are in serious bother here, two down thanks to a curling finish beyond Telford from Sofia Jakobsson! She picked the ball up, 15 yards out, and used Houghton as a screen to bend the ball into the right corner. Telford had no chance, even at full stretch.
Phil Neville speaks:
We’ve had to freshen up in certain areas. Certain players have earned the right to play. In the last couple of days, the players have been my motivation. They’ve motivated me because they’ve played in this game before, four years ago. They’ve been giving me messages on how important it is to go home with a medal. Karen Carney has been one of the best, one of the pioneers, and she will 100 percent get on the field today.
A medal will mean we’ve got something to show for the last 51 days we’ve been away. Something Sue Campbell [the FA’s director of women’s football] said to me last night, is that even though it’s a bronze, in certain colour of light it still looks like gold. So I’m going to get a light at home that makes my bronze medal, hopefully, look like gold! We want to go home with another victory, and keep that feeling of winning.
Where England must improve
Katie Whyatt has examined the departments in which England have to improve if that elusive major trophy is going to be theirs one day. Naturally, there's room for...
After Steph Houghton’s ill-fated penalty during England’s semi-final exit, Neville was quick to explain what he considered “the most in-depth practice and analysis process that probably any team’s ever gone into” regarding spot-kicks.
His side took hundreds of practice penalties over six months, but the long and short is that they missed three of their four awarded out here. When Nikita Parris was removed as first-choice penalty taker, Neville insisted Houghton was the next best, a fact of which she was aware.
But would Ellen White, who won the penalty and had already found the back of the net twice in that game, have been a better candidate in that moment? And what of Parris’ insistence that penalties are “not a designated part of the training”?
Nice weather for it
It's baking in Nice, we're told: 28 degrees, which will feel more like 38 degrees at pitch level in the sun.
This will be a rather low-key goodbye to Karen Carney - once hailed as the "Wayne Rooney of women's football" - who could make her 144th England appearance from the bench today before she retires from the game.
“I think, moving forward, I don’t really know what I want to do. There isn’t an opportunity in the media for me. I’d like to give back to football in some capacity – what that is, I don’t know. I think I’d feel quite empty if I wasn’t able to help. I don’t know what that is and I don’t know what I’m going to do.
'In the World Cup bubble, you do not always understand what you’ve achieved'
Now is the time to use England's legacy at this World Cup and grow the women's game, writes England international Jordan Nobbs:
It is hard when you go out in a semi-final: you have to be focused for the third-place play-off while accepting you’re out of the tournament. It’s very difficult, mentally, to stay strong for one more game. These girls have been through it before at the World Cup in 2015 and they’ll be able to do it again.
In the World Cup bubble, you do not always understand what you’ve achieved. Only when you come home and you wake up in the morning without a schedule or a game can you digest the tournament. Mentally and physically, you’re drained – but then the impact they’ve made for the women’s game should start to dawn on them.
Because there were so few expectations on us for the last World Cup, we had to kind of get the ball rolling first and show we are a strong team. We naturally believed in ourselves and knew how far we could go – but it was us against the world. Then, especially near the end of the tournament, the media came on board and really supported us. With this one, we had the support and interest before the tournament even started. Huge sponsors were coming in. Steph Houghton and Nikita Parris were on Lucozade bottles and Jill Scott on Budweiser cans.
They definitely take it in their stride, but you can’t deny it’s exciting when players in our squad keep changing the face of the women’s game. Only if the women’s game is visual to people in all areas of the world will it ever grow. We had a record of over 11 million viewers on Monday night and 54,000 people in the stadium. The nation are feeling this World Cup. The last one was a very big stepping stone and this again has been an amazing time for women’s football.
The World Cup through her eyes
Telegraph Women’s Sport sent six of our best journalists to cover the tournament, we recruited a star columnist in England and Arsenal’s Jordan Nobbs, and live blogged every major game.
But to tell the story of what football means to young women and girls back home, we needed a different approach. We asked Goals4Girls, a girls' football programme for 11-16 year old’s founded by former Manchester City footballer Francesca Brown, to help us tell the story through their eyes...
Third place play-offs, eh? We can't live with 'em, Fifa apparently just can't live without them.
A year on from the men going through the motions against Belgium in St Petersburg, England will again be forced to complete the post-heartbreak formalities.
What should we make of this tournament from an English perspective? Has Phil Neville charmed us? Both those questions, and more, were answered in the latest Audio Football Club podcast, with host Thom Gibbs joined by Kait Borsay, Claire Cohen and, would you believe it, me:
What's at stake today, though, really? Well, England found themselves in this unenviable position four years ago, and an extra-time win over Germany worked out to be more than just the salvaging of some pride. This time around, expectation was higher and the impact of semi-final failure deeper.
Still, there's a Golden Boot to win. Ellen White won't be taking penalties, unfortunately, but she's still well in with a shot and it'd be hugely deserved.
Pressure off, sunshine in Nice, and one last chance to showcase themselves on the world stage for 2019. Might be fun.