by Dom Smith at Old Trafford
With England’s politicians seemingly capable only of dividing, the nation needs a different group to step up and unite it this summer. The Lionesses certainly fit the bill, hosts of Euro 2022 and with as good a chance as any to finally win major silverware. They made themselves known, impressing in front of 69,000 at a sell-out Old Trafford with a deserved 1–0 win over Austria in the Women’s Euro 2022 opener.
Once the flares and flames of the opening ceremony had abated, England returned from the smog fired up for a match that had been in the calendar for what feels like forever. Delayed by a year because of Covid, England were not going to waste this chance to make a statement start to the tournament now that it was finally here.
Beth Mead particularly. A year ago, she missed out on Hege Riise’s Team GB squad for the Tokyo Olympics. She’s returned with more than something to prove. As England slowly went through the motions against their Central European opponents, Mead chested and controlled Fran Kirby’s gorgeous clipped through-ball. Mead lobbed goalkeeper and Arsenal teammate Manuela Zinsberger and across the line it crept. Not Carina Wenninger’s goal-line clearance nor the goal-line technology could deny her a 14th England goal of the season. She extended her lead over previous holder Jimmy Greaves as the top scorer in a single season for England. Who says wingers are supposed to cross?Embed from Getty Images
16 minutes on the clock and Sarina Wiegman’s team had already established a lead. But this is the same team who beat Latvia 20–0 in November. They don’t slow up at one — they push for more.
Austria are no such similar rollovers to Latvia, but their best player Sarah Zadrazil was right to call England a “super strong side” when speaking to EnglandFootball.org ahead of the sides’ freezing-cold meeting at the Stadium of Light last autumn.
England went up another gear altogether in creation and invention. The irresistibly good Lauren Hemp sent a blindside pass through to Mead that no one else in this theatre of dreams would even have dreamt of trying. So nearly a second. Minutes later Fran Kirby sent a similar defence-splitting pass through to Lucy Bronze. England remained a pass away from doubling their lead — until Verena Hanshaw flew up the left flank to crack a shot over the bar which reminded England of their opponents’ limited but very real threat.
Mead should really have had her second following Ellen White’s brilliant tackle, where she dispossessed the dallying Wenninger in an area no defender should ever lose the ball. Zinsberger denied her, roaring at her defenders with delight.
The goals and records and fun of England’s first year under Wiegman do of course require the significant asterisk that it has included one of England’s easiest-ever qualifying campaigns. Goals in tournaments are harder to come by, and wins even more so. England were smart to take it down a notch in the second half and avoid unnecessary risks.
If that insurance goal came, then great. Kirby and Georgia Stanway tried to force the issue from range, before a shot in anger from Katharina Naschenweng cleared Mary Earps’s crossbar. Norway are England’s toughest opponents in this group, but Irene Fuhrmann’s Austria were rightly given respect here.Embed from Getty Images
There was never a sense that the crowd would flatten — and the introductions of Chloe Kelly, Ella Toone and Alessia Russo from the bench ensured that was also true down on the turf. Kelly has returned from that ghastly ACL injury so impressively and was twisting, turning and crossing almost the second she took her place on the right wing.
As Austria made changes to push for parity, Barbara Dunst forced Earps into a wonderful diving save on 78 minutes, but England were winning the second balls and getting the breaks. More importantly, they understandably had almost all the backing of the terraces.
England still need certain things to click into place if they’re to challenge for the Euros this summer. They still give up too many chances and still rush that final pass. Even so, few teams will relish facing them on home soil.
Wiegman’s Lionesses warmed up with 3–0, 5–1 and 4–0 wins over strong sides all at this tournament. Lucy Bronze told EnglandFootball.org last week: “I’m sure a lot of people will be speaking about us.” England 1–0 winners in the Manchester mizzle. England up and running. If they were speaking then, they’re definitely speaking now.