England went into Friday night’s game at the King Power Stadium knowing that back-to-back wins over Belgium in the next five days would secure their Olympic qualification despite defeat to previous European champions the Netherlands in their last game.
Sarina Weigman’s side were yet to discover their free-flowing goal-scoring form from the World Cup experimenting with formations and personnel in the first-ever Women’s Nations League campaign.
Scotland pushed the Lionesses all the way and were perhaps unlucky not to get something from the game in the opening fixture narrowly losing out 2-1 before being on the end of a defeat by the same scoreline away to the Netherlands.
It was five years since the tragic helicopter crash at the King Power Stadium which saw five people killed one being the Leicester City chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha so both sets of players were wearing black armbands as a mark of respect and as a tribute to the late Sir Bobby Charlton who passed away this week
Belgium are a side that have definitely progressed as the year has gone on and currently sits at the top of the group after beating the two-time World Cup Runners Up before drawing with Scotland.
It had been recently announced that Weigman would take charge of the Great Britain side at the 2024 Olympics in Paris if they qualify but in order to do so it meant England who were nominated as the representative for Team GB had to top the group.
Weigman made three changes to the team that lost to Netherlands last month with Kiera Walsh returning from injury and places in the team for Manchester City forward Chloe Kelly and in-form Chelsea defender Niamh Charles. This saw Katie Zelem, Rachel Daly and birthday girl Jess Carter drop to the bench. Lauren James was ruled out of both fixtures earlier this week due to concussion protocols and has returned to Chelsea whilst Aston Villa defender Lucy Parker was also forced to withdraw after picking up an ankle injury in training.
Belgium made two changes to the side that drew with Scotland last time around. Janice Cayman looked to continue her fine form that she has been producing so far for Leicester City this season whilst Belgium manager Ives Serneels chose to start with Brighton goalkeeper Nicky Evrard in between the posts. Justine Vanhaevermaet also started with Liverpool’s Yaya Daniels and UDG Tenerife forward Jassina Blom on the bench. Sari Kees was unavailable due to injury.
Weigman opted to return to a back four which brought them success through their Euro 2022 campaign looking to keep their first clean sheet in 5 matches to a team that this time last year was known for their defensive record and free flow scoring. A number of players have played in that left-back role and this time it was Charles’ turn to make her claim for the position which she didn’t disappoint.
England were defending a 49 unbeaten streak on home soil stretching back to 2005 as the trademark Sweet Caroline echoed round the King Power Stadium.
Charles shining at left-back
The England number 3 started strongly and never looked back. It only took her two minutes to be involved in the game as she had the first chance of the match hooking an attempt over the bar. She was always eager to get forward and join supporting the wingers when needed. Charles was at the heart of most Lionesses attacks driving into the box but the lack of movement and options in the final third meant chances went begging to be put away.
Much welcomed return of Kirby
A sell out crowd of 28,831 fans welcomed back Chelsea attacking midfielder Fran Kirby all be it to the bench after being absent for both club and country for the best part of a year but she announced her arrival in style. It was great to see Kirby back in a Lionesses shirt and she has never looked more at home. Not just her personality and presence in the dressing room has been missed but her creativity and calmness on the ball is incredible.
It didn’t take long for her to show what England had been lacking with her drawing players out from the Belgium defence to allow space for wingers Hemp and Jess Park to exploit. Her ability to run at players and not scared to strike a shot on goal was something they were hugely missing in the first half.
Earps a fan favourite
Mary Earps finally won her battle with Nike to have her goalkeeper shirt produced after constant demand from the fans and to no surprise the recently nominated Women’s Player of the Year shirt sold out almost immediately with more expected to be on sale before Christmas.
The chants of Mary every time she touched the ball would have no doubt brought a smile to her face and deservingly so as times in the game she prevented the Red Flames from equalising producing a couple of saves of the highest quality.
She makes the most complicated of saves look so easy preventing Belgium from equalising on more than one occasion.
Belgium dangerous on the counter-attack
Weigman was right to not take the fellow European side lightly as they started with a high tempo. They knew they were in for a tough game as they showed in September through their organised defending and strength in duels and this game was no different.
Having spent the opening exchanges under pressure it was Belgium who should have perhaps taken the lead as a Vanhaevermaet header called the World Cup Golden Glove winner Earps into action tipping the effort onto the post.
Despite the dominance of England and taking the lead, it was the opposition who created the better chances as Earps was forced into another save after a poor clearance.
Tesse Wullaert was the next to go close with a deflected shot following a fine solo run before Kassandra Missipo fired into the side netting from a corner.
The warning signs were definitely there from the Red Flames as Wullart found herself clear through on goal only to be denied by a perfectly timed block from the England captain.
Earps was determined to keep her clean sheet as she came to the rescue once again in the second half after Sarah Wijnuts had a crack from distance.
England’s lack of clinical edge
It was more of the same story that has been evident at the start of our Nations League campaign so far. They failed to capitalise on the Belgium defence being all over the place in the opening five minutes with Hemp having an attempt clawed away by the keeper before and Ella Toone should have done better with the follow up header.
Seven minutes on the clock and England had had four attempts but failed to score. The goal came from simply being in the right place at the right time as Hemp reacted quickest to smash the ball into the back of the net after Millie Bright’s header cannoned back off the post. Toone looked more of herself after going missing in previous game forcing saves from the Belgium keeper following a string of efforts from distance.
Weigman will be disappointed the game wasn’t more comfortable and put to bed as every time her team attacked they looked like scoring. Russo really struggled to lead the line failing to get a touch on a Bright cross with the goal open which saw her replaced in the second half by Daly. Her introduction as well as Kirby brought a game that was at risk of becoming flat into light as her constant energy and pressing of the Belgium defence forced mistakes however it was more of the same story as last year’s WSL top goal scorer even struggled to provide the finishing touch with the Lionesses side being guilty of becoming predictable in attack.
22 attempts for the hosts and 72% in what was a scrappy game but a much needed clean sheet and a win was the most important thing especially with the Netherlands beating Scotland. They now move level on points with the group leaders but there are definitely questions to be asked going into Tuesday’s game.
England are back in action in two days when they travel to Belgium for the return in Leuven before their final two group games against the Netherlands at Wembley and Scotland at Hampden Park at the beginning of December’s