by Dom Smith
This was Lucy Bronze’s 100th cap, and it illuminated why she earned the previous 99. Bronze left Manchester City for Barcelona in the summer and while back on English shores for this double-header, she has shown why she is widely regarded as the best right-back the women’s game has ever seen.
Bronze was asked in the week whether she would recommend more England stars test themselves in other European leagues besides the WSL. Her answer was an unequivocal yes. She recalled her fruitful three-year display at Lyon, reminding the gathering press that while in France, “I became the best player in the world.”
Winning the 2020 FIFA The Best Award wasn’t the only telling sign for that. Her performances spoke for themselves — and she was back at her scintillating best as England returned to Brighton where they enjoyed two of their greatest nights at the Euros. They humbled Norway 8-0 and saw off Spain 2-1 at the Amex. Now they returned to face the Czech Republic who lack tournament experience but defend well and have held both the Netherlands and United States in the last year.Embed from Getty Images
But England beat the Dutch ahead of the Euros at Elland Road and the United States famously on Friday. They started well as Lauren James so nearly made her first Lionesses start count, smashing the post as she approached goal from the left.
James put in an expectedly mature and skiful display, but it was Bronze on the other flank who was England’s best performer, nutmegging Simona Necidová with a smart flicked pass to Alex Greenwood. She dispossessed Czech midfielders and cantered into the middle of the park. She popped up on the left and floated the ball in for Chloe Kelly to glance wide. She was everywhere.
England stuttered at moments in this friendly. The Czechs are disciplined opponents and that’s not a lazy trope simply used because they were underdogs. They genuinely are defensively disciplined and genuinely were here. Sarina Wiegman’s side found them tough to outfox.
Bronze led the way. She was sent tumbling off the pitch by a robust Gabriela Šlajsová challenge. They knew to keep tabs on England’s bullish right-back. Fellow Barcelona player Keira Walsh regularly looks comfortably the best player on the pitch and was close to her marauding best in a first half when England pushed but never quite hard enough.Embed from Getty Images
Beth Mead’s introduction from the bench after the break brought an inevitable lift in England’s ambition and incision. Bronze played the Arsenal ace in, and Mead’s cross met Lauren Hemp who nodded just over.
Mead was the golden boot and golden ball winner at the Euros. She showed the continent what many in England have known she’s capable of for four years or more. Her directness is dizzying and nearly brought the opener when captain Millie Bright played her in with a deft ball Mead plucked down with poise. She tried to round Olivie Lukášová but the goalkeeper smothered just about well enough. England thwarted again.
Soon Hemp was in, chipping the ball over Lukášová. But it came back off the post and defender Petra Bertholdová’s goal-line persistence — and perhaps a smidgen of divine intervention — prevented Fran Kirby converting a tap-in.
Esme Morgan made her England debut from the bench and Ebony Salmon was introduced for her second cap, but the injection of youth did not provide the magic moment, despite England’s more than 70 percent share of possession. Mead and Kirby were both denied by the increasingly busy Lukášová, but that Czech drawbridge was showing no sympathy to the European champions. This was the Czech Republic’s cup final. Thank goodness the Lionesses have already had theirs.