England beat Denmark, 2–0, in their penultimate match before heading to France next week for the 2019 World Cup.
Goals either side of the break from new Lyon signing Nikita Parris and captain-for-the-day Jill Scott secured a victory that came far from easy against a side that didn’t make it to France 2019.
Head coach Phil Neville said in his pre-match press conference the experimentation phase was over and he made minimal changes to his side from the 2–1 win over Spain.
Leah Williamson once again partnered Millie Bright at the heart of defense while Rachel Daly got another run-out at right back with Lucy Bronze rested after being involved in last week’s Champions League final.
Jill Scott and Jade Moore were the preferred midfield pairing while Ellen White, Georgia Stanway, and Beth Mead all kept their places, and Parris returned in place of Toni Duggan the only change in attack.
The Lionesses started slowly, a theme that hasn’t been uncommon in recent matches but one that Neville shrugged off quickly in his post-match press conference, with the visitors creating the better of the early chances.
A succession of corners came to nothing but England once again looked uncomfortable defending set pieces, with the brilliant Pernille Harder heading the first one wide before Rikke Sevecke also headed one over.
Sanne Troelsgaard had the best chance to open the scoring after the impressive Sofie Svava beat both Parris and Daly down the left, laying her cross off for the FC Rosengård midfielder whose goal-bound shot was well blocked Moore.
Looking Good on the Counter
In reality, England looked at their best when playing on the counter. Scott, who was magnificent and England’s most consistent performer across the 90 minutes, burst forward from a Denmark corner and played an inch-perfect pass for White, whose lobbed effort dropped agonizingly wide.
Georgia Stanway saw an effort from outside the box deflected wide before Demi Stokes had an effort that also bounced just wide of the far post.
Denmark continued to push forward with Harder a constant menace, and probably should have taken the lead when Signe Bruun tapped home from point-blank range, only to have a handball call go against her; replays showed England were fortunate to remain at 0–0.
The Lionesses certainly didn’t make the most of their width in the first half, Mead, in particular, showing visible frustration when Moore opted to look for White in behind, only for the ball to bounce through to the Denmark goalkeeper.
Mead’s delivery into the box was exemplary throughout, but ironically the opening goal came from her worst cross of the game. A stoppage time free kick was headed away as far as Parris, the forward doing the rest lashing home right before halftime to give England the lead.
In reality, too many players were off-color in the first half, with Neville admitting a number of factors contributed to a sloppy performance, and the Walsall pitch certainly didn’t help the flow of the game either.
“The players needed it [the test], but we half expected that kind of performance,” he admitted. “It was a bit leggy, coming off the back of the end of the season, the team bonding day where they only got one or two hours sleep — we expected a bit of fatigue.
“The disappointment first half was we didn’t play with any kind of rhythm, we played standstill football, which is not what we do. When we got into good areas we looked too excitable, we made the wrong decisions and it just looked messy.”
Daly, who was a bright spark at right back against Canada and Spain, struggled defensively at times and was wasteful in some good positions going forward, but Williamson and Bright were largely faultless in the center.
Jade Moore, who Neville admitted needed the test of facing Harder, struggled with the pace of the game as the Wolfsburg star robbed Moore of possession on several occasions throughout the game.
Scott, once again captain in the absence of Steph Houghton, was excellent, while Stanway blew hot and cold throughout, creating several chances and playing a big role in the second goal when she burst forward, laying the ball off for Mead — another star performer — whose cross was emphatically headed home by Scott.
The second goal was a microcosm of what England can be and probably want to be: a fast break through the middle, using width to their advantage and the third-man run into the box Scott has perfected under Neville; hence her five-goal tally since he took over last January.
Parris, goal aside, was quiet compared to her usual standards and while White largely had the beating of Denmark’s center backs, the biggest thorn in her side was the offside flag.
Karen Bardsley had to be called upon to deny Harder from close range while Karen Carney also showed flashes of her brilliance after coming on, with Neville reserving special praise for his trio of experienced stars.
“My best three players today were Karen Bardsley, Jill Scott, and Karen Carney when she came on, my three most experienced players.
“When they’re on the pitch, they give the team a lot of composure. We’ve got a lot of young players in there who are all excitable, who want to do the right things but the experienced players were fantastic.”
In the end, Harder’s curling free kick was the closest Denmark came to getting back into the match and England walked away with a solid 2–0 win and a clean sheet against a side who were 90 minutes from being crowned European champions less than two years ago.
There are clearly still issues for Neville to iron out before walking out in Nice in little over a fortnight’s time, with his side still looking susceptible from set pieces and some question marks remaining over what his best system is, but the head coach admitted it’s always hard for players to focus on the task at hand with the big games just weeks away.
“As a manager, you stand in front of them and tell them to get going but they’ve got half their mind on the Scotland game, so it’s my job to keep them motivated, but I’m not daft. There were four or five tackles they didn’t come out with the ball because they don’t want to get injured before the Scotland game, it’s human nature.
“The positive is we’ve won. The important thing is a number of players got to play against a world-class number 10 in Harder, who I thought was fantastic.”
The team now have three days off and will be traveling to Brighton early in the week to prepare for next week’s game against New Zealand.
Neville also confirmed Lucy Bronze, Toni Duggan, and Fran Kirby would return to the starting lineup as he now prepares his side for the final match before the World Cup kicks off in two weeks.