by Dom Smith
By the end of the afternoon, England had completed their task — qualifying for next year’s World Cup down under with a 2–0 win over Austria. But this was an occasion totally unlike a World Cup itself, and totally unlike England’s last match, when they won the Euros in front of 90,000 in the final at Wembley.
Back down to earth for Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses, but in terms of the feel of the event — not in terms of the result. The result in the end was a narrow victory which England just about merited. The result of the result: England’s World Cup spot secured.
With Jill Scott and Ellen White deciding this summer was a perfect time to hang up their well-worn boots, the question became whether Alessia Russo — so often the impact sub at the Euros — could start. The answer was that she can still finish. From Alex Greenwood’s deep cross in the seventh minute, Lauren Hemp knocked down in the air and Russo found an excellent clipped volley. The Manchester United forward tucked the ball into the unguarded far corner for an early England lead.
Julia Hickelsberger-Füller shanked over the bar shortly after, trying to level for Austria. The hosts have become known as one of the shrewdest teams in European football, coached by the quiet yet canny Irene Fuhrmann. They lost just 1–0 to England in their last two meetings, and their high press prevented the European champions from creating as many chances as they’d have liked.Embed from Getty Images
The game opened up somewhat after the break at the obscure 4,000-seater Stadion Wiener Neustadt. There was nearly a dreadful moment for Mary Earps, who was tackled at the goalmouth by Hickelsberger-Füller, but it trickled just wide to the sheer relief of Earps and England. Both sides just off the pace, but after two intense Euros campaigns, few would hold that against them.
Wiegman’s side turned the screw and looked to double their lead, Ella Toone and Georgia Stanway coming close from presentable chances. But Austria were always in the contest and so nearly equalised when Laura Feiersinger forced Earps into a superb save in postage stamp territory.
No sooner had Austria been denied than England sealed their fate at next summer’s World Cup with a stellar second goal. From Stanway’s gorgeous feed, Nikita Parris blasted high into the roof of the net. 2–0. Game over. World Cup berth safely sealed.Embed from Getty Images
Then came a raft of substitutions, including the introduction of Lauren James for her England debut. The 20-year-old Chelsea forward is the sister of Chelsea men’s defender Reece James and seen as one of English football’s brightest young talents.
By the time she arrived, though, the chance of further goals was now somewhat limited. England’s hard work was now behind them. Now they deployed the professionalism that got them so deservedly over the line in July’s Euros final against the Austrians’ neighbours in extra-time.
England at their fifth Women’s World Cup in a row. 70 goals for and zero against in their first nine of ten qualifiers. Sarina Wiegman still unbeaten after her first year as England manager. If there’s a bump in this road, they haven’t reached it yet. Far from home, but home and dry.