Three hours, 14 goals, 63 shots and restricting the opposition to just one shot over the course of the two matches. A routine win but a win, a win against a team ranked 45 in the world, but a win that brings so much confidence, a much needed boost after a less than comfortable qualifying campaign for England so far.
Lack of punch going forward
A home coming in Bristol that was a washout for all the wrong reasons, Jill Scott with a last-gasp winner - the Lionesses’ heroic homecoming after a blistering performance in Canada was not all that the 13,000 fans who turned out had expected or hoped for. They had just come back from a friendly against Germany, it was the end of a long season, a long year for the Lionesses and there were issues all across the pitch. The conditions weren’t brilliant, the wind and the rain playing havoc and the match didn’t live up to the billing.
Next up was the SheBelieves Cup; England players all in pre-season, against the toughest opponents in the world. England smart and a little unlucky, defending well but lacking a touch of magic going forward. However, a 1-0 loss to the current World Champions, a 2-1 loss to Germany and a 0-0 draw with France were three good results, no matter what the circumstances.
Less than a month later, England were back in action, back to trying to qualify for Euro 2017, starting at home against Belgium, their nearest competition in the group. The Red Flames, an up-and-coming side but a side that should have been no match for the Lionesses, gave Mark Sampson's side huge problems.
Set up to defend, as they had against the likes of Germany and France, England's players looked unfamiliar with their new roles, out of place and out of touch. After a series of errors, Karen Bardsley was left red-faced as she picked herself up from the turf in Rotherham and plucked the ball out of the back of her net. England hadn’t conceded in a home qualifier for fourteen years, a record smashed by a team that had switched off at the back, Janice Cayman alert to sense the danger and chase the ball down before poking past Bardsley.
As unsettled as England started, conceding did nothing to calm them down, Belgium even more happy to drop back and protect their lead. Even as England saw more of the ball in the second half as Sampson started to switch out the personnel on the pitch, something still looked wrong with the team. Once again, Jill Scott was on hand to grab a late goal, England snatching a point and more importantly, stopping Belgium from claiming all three.
England didn’t have time to dwell on the result before setting off for the next qualifier, away in Zenica, coming up against a still-resolute Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian defence was not as staunch as it had been in Bristol, but Almina Hodžić was still on a song, denying England at [nearly] every opportunity.
Once again, England relied on a centurion to get them out of jail late in the game, this time Karen Carney was the lifeline, scissor kicking the ball into the back of the net after seeing her initial effort saved and sent back into her path. The clock read 88 minutes, the handful of fans who’d travelled and those who sat in front of their computers back home, intently watching the screen for updates, could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
Goals, goals at long last
A modest crowd of just under 6,000 turned out at Adams Park in High Wycombe to watch England in their next home qualifier against Serbia, expecting to see them banking up and defending solidly, just as Bosnia had done. England, still comfortable enough in their group, didn't take Serbia lightly, but there was a slightly different mood in the camp. Rachel Daly and Nikita Parris had been called up and were hoping for their first senior caps, while all players very much match-fit, all regular starters for their respective clubs. After a less than enthusiastic run of results, England were ready to attack this match, to grab it by the scruff of the neck and put on a performance for the crowd.
Which is exactly what they did. Lucy Bronze and Ellen White both came close early on, but the fans watching from the stands as a handful of shots went just wide or just over the bar, were squirming in their seats, just wanting to see something on target – although enjoying the positivity shown by the Lionesses.
Alex Greenwood’s smart finish into the far corner with 16 minutes in gave the home fans something to cheer about; a goal and an early one at that, maybe this game would be the one to buck the trend. Carney added a second from the spot, ten minutes before the break, a textbook finish into the bottom corner, just inside of the post, nothing Susanne Nilsson could do to stop it. But still the goals kept coming, Daly with a dream debut, finding the back of the net after an unselfish cut-back from White. Half-time and England with a commanding lead.
As is often the case, teams that go into the half-time break with a strong lead, struggle to get going when they come back out, subconsciously switching off as the job is all but done. However, there would be none of that from the Lionesses. They needed a big win, needed to stamp their authority all over the match. As expected, England came out for the second half hungry for more.
It didn’t take long after the restart for England to find the back of the net once more, White notching her first goal in an England shirt since a World Cup qualifier in September 2013. Seconds after the restart, Nilsson was once again picking the ball out of the goal for another restart, Izzy Christiansen with yet another goal for her tally, a third on her sixth cap.
Still the goals kept coming, Carney adding her second and then third of the day. Two poorly defended corners saw her in the right place at the right time as both shots cannoned off of her and past Nilsson into the goal. After completing her hat-trick she sat on the goal line, a confused smile on her face, going for the ball with her head and missing it - Tijana Krstić’s attempted clearance only able to find Carney’s outstretched boot as she fell over.
As previously said, confidence was the key. England had played with smiles on their faces throughout the match, attacking freely, Serbia not as smart in defence as Bosnia had been but England still having to work to find and create space for themselves and their teammates. Daly had had a good game but looked slightly off, maybe not as relaxed as she might have been. Earning her first cap and getting to play in front of a home crowd, nerves were to be expected. But, scoring in her first match will set her up well for the future; the first goal one of the most important to settle a player.
Conversely, Gemma Davison, who was making her 11th appearance, still struggled with the final ball, doing all the hard work with ease but lacking the composed finish that she’s well capable of. The assumption with Davison was that, once she gets off of the mark, the floodgates will open, but she still needed that first goal.
Déjà vu in Stara Pazova
Just three days later and England were kicking off against Serbia once more, a slight change of personnel and the Lionesses started the game just as they had finished their last, attacking freely and regularly finding the back of the net.
Jill Scott first on the score-sheet and back as joint top goal-scorer in the for England, tied with Carney. White added her second in two matches as England went 2-0 up before the half hour mark, Davison contributing a third for England just before the break.
Once again England came out strongly in the second half, still hungry for more, Davison doubling her tally in an England shirt seconds after the restart before thinking she had rounded off her hat trick, but it was Nevena Damjanović with the last touch to claim the own-goal. Parris came on for her second substitute appearance in as many games and duly opened her account for the senior team, converting a Carney cross from close range, before scoring a peach from outside of the box in the dying minutes.
Although the score will be pleasing to Sampson, the effort will mean more. England, over the two games, didn't just score 14 goals but with a total of 63 efforts; 27 on target, 25 off target, 15 blocked and four against the woodwork.
Plenty of chances created and plenty of chances taken. Players playing with smiles on their faces, debutants integrated and already having scored. More chances for Sampson to assess his players, to see how they work together, to continue to carve out ideas on who’s in the running to make it to Holland.
But much more importantly than the goals; confidence. England finally dominating a low-ranked team, finding a way to play in and around a banked up defence, good build-up and link-up play, plenty to smile about. England finally putting in the performance they’re capable of, a complete performance, confidence and optimism back.