by Dom Smith at Wembley
When October trains on the Jubilee line resemble battery cages, it’s usually because England are in town. And indeed they were. Except all this commotion was not for the England team who’ve called Wembley ‘home’ for 98 years. It was for the England team who are European champions — the one that reached a European final here and actually won it. They’re hot property. So was oxygen on the night train to Stanmore.
The quality of football on offer at the Euros was high — the best of it played by winners England. But the US have stood as the worldwide benchmark since time began (or at least since women were allowed to play football). The States are a whole new calibre of opponent, and England’s first reminder of that came between the 49th and 56th seconds of this always enticing, always noisy affair watched on by 76,000.
Sophia Smith was comfortably the best player on the pitch in the first half and was awarded the freedom of Brent and most of North London as she made a beeline for the six-yard box in from the left. England were about as useless as the stewards at stopping Smith in her tracks. They were mightily lucky that her shot on goal was just as useless again.Embed from Getty Images
England had weapons of their own though, and troubled goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher when Georgia Stanway skipped away from Lindsey Horan and Megan Rapinoe to release Beth Mead. The Lionesses’ newly crowned player of the year tested Naeher.
Stanway fed Mead in acres of space down the right flank as England tried to exploit Wembley’s ubiquity of green. Mead saw the early cross was on and when it came it put Alana Cook into a horrible mess. The ball squirmed through for makeshift forward Lauren Hemp who prodded under Naeher for a tenth-minute England lead. No Alessia Russo, no problem.
This was a friendly in name only. When Stanway landed into Emily Fox after clearing the ball, the Racing Louisville full-back fell to the ground like a tin can falling from the aisle six shelf. Stanway only noticed when Fox stayed down, received treatment, and was eventually replaced by Hailie Mace.
England came into this tussle unbeaten in 22 games and with 14 wins in a row. 21 unbeaten and 13 consecutive wins for the States. Oh how this mattered.
So it was not the time to make mistakes. But Millie Bright’s feed into Stanway’s feet always looked risky and Horan jabbed the ball into the path of Smith who fired into the corner with precision.
Minutes after the equaliser, referee Riem Hussein stopped play midstream and consulted the monitor before awarding England a penalty and booking Mace. After a clearance from an England corner she’d followed through onto Lucy Bronze’s face. England had a penalty and they soon had a goal because Stanway exudes calm in these situations. She stroked home as Naeher leapt out of the way.
The United States thought they’d levelled again when Smith — now causing Rachel Daly problems on the right — ran free and squared for Trinity Rodman to tuck home. VAR befriended the hosts once more and ruled that Smith had been offside before driving forward to cross. England’s lead intact, just.Embed from Getty Images
How must Vlatko Andonovski’s side have felt here as England slipped the ball round them, over them and through them? This England have grown maturer and harder to beat. Chloe Kelly whipped a shot wide and then Bronze struck a piledriver into the side-netting as the European champions tested the world champions’ resistance.
When your luck’s out, your luck’s out. The United States’s luck was so very much out. Hussein pointed to the spot immediately as Rose Lavelle’s shot cannoned against Hemp’s arm. Late pain for England? No. VAR applied its Big Brother magnifying glass once more and rightly decided it had struck Hemp’s leg.
Three strikes and you’re out, VAR? The US were out. Out of luck and out of time.
This was supposed to be the night when it would have been OK if Sarina Wiegman’s unbeaten record as England manager had ended. In fact it proved the perfect homecoming for a side who seem to have inherited the United States’ addiction to winning and one-upped it. Or two-upped it. European champions 2–1 world champions.
A profoundly positive end to a testing week in the women’s game.