England Lionesses failed to score for the second consecutive game as Portugal frustrated the European Champions.
Team selection was eagerly anticipated with many fans unsure how the Lionesses would line up with their opening match of the World Cup 21 days away. Sarina Wiegman opted for Rachel Daly and Lauren James up front ahead of Chloe Kelly and Alessia Russo whilst Alex Greenwood started at left-back with Jess Carter taking the position in the centre of defence in the absence of captain Millie Bright.
In the Lionesses’ first game since losing their unbeaten run to Australia back in April they dominated large parts of the game in possession but despite registering 23 shots on goal only eight of them found the target lacking that cutting edge in the final third. The Lionesses’ closest chances came from Lucy Bronze and Georgia Stanway who was making her 50th appearance in a Three Lions shirt hitting the woodwork as the 26,267 inside Stadium MK didn’t have much to shout about in a pretty dull game.
It was a very flat first half from England, looking rusty on the ball and without any real tempo but that presumably could have been a result of the WSL season finishing a few weeks ago and the girls lack of competitive action. Under no real pressure from the opposition, they were allowed to spray the ball around the pitch from the kick off with the early exchanges taking place deep inside Portugal’s half.
As the sun bellowed down on Stadium MK Daly it took only five minutes for Daly to force a save from Pereira in the Portuguese goal as she scrambled away the Aston Villa forwards header after a fantastic cross by Hemp from the left wing before making a nuisance of herself moments later but her half-chance was unable to be diverted goalwards.
Daly was in the thick of the action again ten minutes later as James pinged a gorgeous ball into the box just evading the outstretched leg of the attacker. Any sort of contact on the ball and the ball would have been in the back of the net.
James showed her quality by gliding past defenders with her unpredictably every time she had the ball at her feet but it was the visitors who grew in confidence as Tatiana Pinto stretched the Lionesses’ defence but Hemp tracked back to prevent the shot from going on target from the edge of the box.
Jessica Silva was the next player to try and get in behind England’s defence but was dealt with comfortably by Esme Morgan as she guided it safely back to goalkeeper Mary Earps who was notably wearing a rainbow-coloured armband in support of London Pride however these will be banned in Australia.
The effort was there from the European champions but frustratingly nothing was falling for them as the half hour approached. England didn’t look as threatening as we know they can be spurred on by the flurry of flags surrounding the stadium and the band doing their best to lift the players.
It took 35 minutes for a rare Portuguese attack to enter the home sides box as Carter hacked away preventing an attempt on target in what had been a very quiet game so far for captain Earps.
The emphasis on relationships off the pitch showed in play as this was being translated on the pitch through good link-up play between full-back and wingers.
As England lacked a direct approach running into the box, they were instead forced to put crosses in which in all honesty the service from James, Hemp and Kelly was outstanding. This time a Hemp cross found its way to Daly who tried a very ambitious bicycle kick that failed to trouble the keeper as Portugal looked to be struggling aerially.
The WSL top goal scorer of the season’s confidence was shining through as the half–time whistle approached. She had no intention of passing the ball as she bared down on goal but her effort was blocked by two opposition defenders throwing themselves in front of the ball.
With the last kick of the first half, Stanway’s header highlighted the frustration in front of goal. Hemp caught the defence off guard floating a ball into the box which found Stanway but her effort glances off the top of the bar and out for a goal kick.
Portugal struggled to track the runners as they tried to push England out wide allowing James and Hemp to exploit the space in behind the defence. As a result of the majority of the game being played out wide on the flanks, Ella Toone struggled to make any sort of impact on the game her only effort being a tame one from just outside the box that went well wide and was substituted by Wiegman at half-time as the England manager opted for the more physical attributes of James dropping her into a less familiar Number 10 role.
In the second half, it was more of the same story as half-time substitute Kelly, desperate to make an impression, tried to ignite some energy into the lionesses’ team forcing a save from Pereira within minutes of the restart.
Wiegman doesn’t often make substitutions at half-time so to make three with Kelly, Russo and Charles coming on for Daly, Toone and Greenwood suggests that she wasn’t thoroughly happy with how things went in the first half.
Portugal was dealt a huge blow in the opening five minutes after the break with one of their bright young attacking talents Kika Nazareth forced off with an injury. Fingers crossed for her it was only precautionary with the world cup just around the corner.
Chance after chance came for the Lionesses to break the deadlock. Hemp saw her header from six yards out land on the roof of the net before Kelly forced another save out of the Portuguese keeper and luckily for her the rebound just evaded the oncoming Russo allowing the visitors to escape with the ball to safety.
Russo got her first sight of goal just before the hour mark. Skipping past a couple of challenges she rounds the keeper only for Ana Borges to clear expertly off the line. It just wasn’t going to be for the Lionesses.
The chances came thick and fast for England. Bronze rose highest to a Stanway cross but saw her effort crash against the bar before two huge chances for Russo went begging after great link up play between herself and James.
Despite England’s dominance, there was a heart-in-mouth moment for goalkeeper nearly gifted Portugal an unlikely goal. The captain who had very little to do all game received a back pass from Hemp. As the United keeper went to control the ball disaster happened when it hit a bobble in the pitch but luckily for Earps it rolls wide of the post and out for a corner.
Hemp made up for the back pass that nearly caught her captain out with consistent superb deliveries into the visitor’s box but as the story had been all game no one able to get on the end of it to convert.
Another two attempts came the way of Russo. A lovely deliver from Kelly finds her in the box but cannot get enough on it to divert goalward whilst her second effort was dragged wide.
There was still a late chance for the attacker to grab the headlines as she latched onto a ball over the top but credit to Portugal who had defended in numbers all game her shot was deflected behind as referee Esther Staubli brought the game to an end.
Despite a lot of criticism with England being described as “wasteful” in front of goal Sarina Wiegman remained optimistic insisting “it just wouldn’t go in” and there are a lot of answers we can take from the match. “I think we are in a very good place. We had two weeks of training. I think that went really well. We did a lot of things as individuals and as a team both on and off the pitch. I think this game you saw moments when we played really well but you also saw moments when the game was really slow and we need to speed up. We created lots of chance and of course we wanted to score that goal.”
Alessia Russo and Chloe Kelly gave a great account of themselves in the second 45 from the bench linking up well with James suggesting that the competition is very high but one thing is clear Wiegman is yet to make a certain decision on who will make the starting 11 for their opening game of the World Cup. “We haven’t made a decision on the No 9 spot yet. It’s close. There is a real competition going on and we have Rachel Daly, we have Alessia Russo, we have Beth England. But you can also see on the wings we have opportunities.
At the back, we have opportunities with Millie coming back too. We haven’t decided. It’s good to see all the players on the pitch and also the moments when we train together and improving getting ready for the World Cup. We don’t have to make the final decisions and we haven’t done yet.”
Wiegman was full of praise for the defensive partnerships when asked about her decisions at left back and centre back. “I think that went well. I was considering a left-footer at left back but also do we have possession a lot? Do they have speed a lot? As you saw with the speed of Jess and Esme, that helped. I also think they were calm and in possession they did well”
Weigman used seventeen players and tinkered a few systems throughout the game in an attempt to find a way past the Portugal defence but at the same time fine-tuning any last-minute plans she has on her mind. Katie Zelem and Laura Coombs didn’t look out of place after coming on in the second half with Brighton forward Katie Robinson also getting valuable experience
England fly out to Australia on Wednesday and have one more game to get prepared with a behind closed doors friendly against Canada on 14th July.