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The Lionesses couldn’t hide it, Sarina Wiegman admitted it: England head to the Women’s World Cup with a feeling of disappointment and frustration. A goalless draw against Portugal was not the send-off England wanted after missed chances spoiled the expectant party atmosphere in Milton Keynes.
There was always going to be an element of rustiness at play here, five weeks after many of England’s players had their final match of the domestic season. This was England’s first game for two months, a fixture that was arranged with conditioning in mind as much as anything else, with a focus on sharpening combinations ahead of the World Cup rather than results.
Had one of those chances fallen in – if Alessia Russo hadn’t been denied by the sliding defender Marques Borges after rounding the goalkeeper, or if Lucy Bronze’s header had drifted inside the post moments later – then of course England would have an outlook that is much, much rosier ahead of the World Cup.
But they didn’t, and it means that England suddenly head into the World Cup without a win in two games, both of which have come without a goal. Even though England go into the World Cup as European champions, there was certainly more optimism heading into the Euros last summer. Portugal didn’t win a game at the Euros and although they are an improving side and will be at the World Cup, this was a match that the Lionesses were expected to win and win well.
Yet England for the most part played their game and looked threatening. Wiegman’s side showed the way they wanted to play, with the England manager even flashing a look at a system that could be devastating in Australia if it is given another try. Before this warm-up game, the focus was on the selections Wiegman had to make: on whether to go with Alessia Russo or Rachel Daly, or start with Lauren James, Chloe Kelly or Lauren Hemp. Wiegman insisted she came away with more answers than questions, perhaps not at a first-choice striker but certainly in the forward line.
James, Kelly or Hemp? Why not all three? The Lionesses drastically improved in the second half when James was moved inside to No 10, with Hemp on the left and Kelly on the right. With James central, the danger flowed from all angles and brought a better balance to the side. “You can tell she can play there,” Wiegman said. “Tight on the ball, powerful, with vision, she did good things.” There was room for improvement too. The England manager also said that James could have been better with her decision-making and final ball but those comments also could have related to anyone at Stadium MK.
Wiegman was ‘disappointed’ with England’s draw but focused on the positives
(The FA via Getty)
But the Lionesses routinely got into the right areas: particularly with Hemp and Kelly out wide. All of England’s play was funnelled from there towards the middle, where Russo and Daly shared a half each. Had Daly’s back-post header found the target in the opening stages, set up by Hemp’s duck outside and dink to the back post, then this could have developed into a very different game. Russo had the better opportunities following the break but couldn’t take them, but they are both still world-class options. Wiegman said she wasn’t concerned: the goals will come if they continued to do the right things.
And England, for the most part, did that. Georgia Stanway, visibly radiating with confidence after winning the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich this season, clearly enjoyed herself, rolling an audacious nutmeg past a bewildered Portuguese player in midfield in the first half along with a series of clever turns and feints. Her presence in midfield alongside Keira Walsh, who also just looks so assured after her year with Barcelona, was where England were just so on top. Both were taken off when England pressed for a winner, a situation that wouldn’t have happened had minutes not been a consideration.
This, after all, was a friendly – it certainly wasn’t a time to panic. But like a lot of the mood ahead of this World Cup, it feels like England’s team for the tournament can go one of two ways: either Wiegman will know her starting line-up by the time the Lionesses play Haiti on 22 July, or there will be an uncertainty in the side that wasn’t there last summer. “We’re not closer now,” Wiegman said when asked if she knew her starting team. “I’m not sure we get closer now.”
But England feel close. A couple of goals against Portugal would have made all the difference and created the send-off atmosphere many had arrived for, and that England’s performance largely deserved.