After a week of continuous burning sunshine, the claps of thunder that greeted Nice on Sunday morning were perhaps not just a sign of the battle that was to come later in the day, but also a relief to two sets of players more accustomed to the watery climates of the United Kingdom.
More than 13,000 supporters packed into the picturesque Allianz Riviera stadium, the same place which ended Roy Hodgson’s international reign the last time an England team played there.
It was a very different outcome for Phil Neville’s side under the summer sun but Scotland put up a much tougher test than the one they managed under Anna Signeul in Utrecht two years ago.
First-half goals from Nikita Parris and Ellen White, the former from the penalty spot, had put England in control until Claire Emslie, who had been Scotland’s main threat throughout, stole in with just over 10 minutes remaining to half the deficit.
But if Nice’s famed Promenade des Anglais is the “Walkway of the English,” then the Lionesses made the Allianz Riviera pitch their garden for the majority of a first half that should have led to a more comfortable victory than the one which played out.
This was the 26th meeting between the two sides since the now well-known first international between the two back in 1972.
England had won 22 of the previous 25 in less glamorous surroundings than Nice. Nuneaton, Dundee, Preston, Walsall, Livingston, Bolton, and Birkenhead just some of the places to host previous matches before the clash on the French Riviera.
On the banks of the River Var, it was somewhat apt that VAR itself played the first major role in deciding the game. When Fran Kirby’s cross hit the arm of Nicola Docherty from close range, play went on for all but a few seconds before Jana Adamkova was invited to go and have another look.
The decision was given to howls of derision from the Scotland tartan army, but Nikita Parris stuck her penalty away, reminding everyone again that she was true to her word when it comes to not feeling any pressure.
Aside from VAR, it was perhaps apt once more that it was someone named Parris who opened England’s account in France.
It gave England the impetus to get on top in a game they’d started slowly. Ellen White was a menace up front, making near-post runs from corners and forcing an excellent low save from Lee Alexander, before putting the ball into the net but was then denied, correctly, by the lineswoman’s flag.
It looked like there was more VAR drama on the way soon after when the ball struck Caroline Weir on the arm but after a quick check, Adamkova this time signaled for play to continue.
England continued to dominate and showed a swagger not often seen in recent matches, with Bronze, Parris, Kirby, and Mead in particular enjoying the size of the pitch.
Mead and White were both once again thwarted by an inspired Alexander performance which kept the score at 0–1 as the game passed the half-hour mark.
Phil Neville’s side did though capitalize on their dominance five minutes before halftime. A 50/50 between Kirby and Rachel Corsie saw the ball run for White who wasted no time in slipping it past Alexander.
England started the second half as quickly as they’d ended the first, but the offside flag this time stopped Beth Mead getting a goal on her major tournament debut as White had crept ahead of the last defender during the build up.
Neville was forced into a change before the hour mark when Millie Bright appeared to take a knock to her shoulder in a collision with Chelsea teammate Erin Cuthbert, with new Manchester United signing Abbie McManus taking her place.
England appeared happy to take things lowly in the evening humidity of the French coast but Emslie had other ideas, getting in behind Alex Greenwood to make for an interesting last 10 minutes as she fired high past her former Manchester City teammate Bardsley.
To Neville’s relief, Scotland never mustered the major chance they threatened through pressure to find a crucial equalizer, leaving England to walk away with a vital three points and already ensuring they have one foot in the second round given the potential for four groups to see three teams progress beyond the group stages.
The Lionesses now travel to Le Havre on Monday afternoon to start preparing for Friday night’s clash against Argentina, a game that could see progress confirmed.
England (4-2-3-1): Karen Bardsley; Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton (C), Millie Bright (Abbie McManus 55), Alex Greenwood; Keira Walsh, Jill Scott; Nikita Parris, Fran Kirby (Georgia Stanway 82), Beth Mead (Karen Carney 71); Ellen White
Scotland (4-5-1): Lee Alexander; Sophie Howard (Chloe Arthur 75), Jen Beattie, Rachel Corsie (C), Nicola Docherty (Kirsty Smith 55); Claire Emslie, Caroline Weir, Christie Murray (Lizzie Arnot 87), Kim Little, Lisa Evans; Erin Cuthbert
Unused subs: Jo Love, Hayley Lauder, Leanne Crichton, Shannon Lynn, Jane Ross, Joelle Murray, Lana Clelland, Fiona Brown, Jenna Fife
England: Parris ’14 (pen), White ’40
Scotland: Emslie ’79