It has felt like a lifetime since England lifted the European Championship trophy at Wembley, a mere two and a bit months ago, but suddenly walking into the national stadium, breathing the memories of that warm July evening, it felt like no time at all.
A rendition of “God Save The King” pre-match reminded everyone inside the stadium of how much can change in so little time, as once again a close-to-capacity crowd crammed into Wembley to watch the new champions of Europe take on the number one team in the world and the current world champions.
And it was befitting of the tag too. Some games get hyped and fail to deliver, this one didn’t. There was no “friendly” about it, as Emily Fox sadly found out when she got introduced to Georgia Stanway midway through the first half and had to be replaced by Hailie Mace.
Mace. Stanway. Everyone. All of them in the thick of the action during a pulsating 90 minutes under the lights at Wembley.
Sarina Wiegman is very rarely a woman to throw in a curve ball, but there was much discussion leading up to the game as to who would lead the Lionesses in the absence of Euro starter Ellen White and the injured Alessia Russo.
Could it be Rachel Daly? Finally? Would it be the young gun Ebony Salmon, who knows the National Women’s Soccer League and most of her potential opponents like the back of her hand?
Few would have said Lauren Hemp, who has rarely ever played the number nine role in her career, but just like every other decision Wiegman has made since arriving onto these four shores, it paid off — in less than 10 minutes.
Beth Mead, obviously, was involved, as England broke at pace and the Ballon d’Or nominee’s cross was gladly tapped home by Hemp, striker.
It lit the fire under a particularly frantic first half, which despite not leaving either Mary Earps or Alyssa Naeher overly busy, was played as if a major title was on the line.
The world champions hit back when England were caught playing out from the back. Lindsey Horan nicking the ball off Stanway and leaving Sophia Smith, who was a constant menace throughout, to hammer home the equalizer.
Then it was VARs turn to take center stage, both times in the favor of the hosts, and to the delight of the crowd. First, Mace was penalized for a high boot on Lucy Bronze inside the box, and Stanway made up for her error by sending Naeher the wrong way to put England back in front.
Following that, the most marginal of offside calls denied the U.S. a superb equalizer, as Smith, Rapinoe, and Trinity Rodman tore England’s defense to pieces, but only after Rodman slotted home did VAR pick up Smith running just offside in the buildup.
Providing the backdrop to the frantic action on the pitch was an intriguing question: had either team really been any good? Both looked vulnerable at the back, England certainly more so than at any point during the European Championships, but it was those flaws that made for such an entertaining spectacle.
The caveat is both sides, particularly the visitors, were missing key players, and as ever in friendlies, the second half became a competition of who could make the most substitutions and when.
Vlatko Andonovski blinked first, bringing on the returning Crystal Dunn and the player he stated in the prematch pressers should be a MVP candidate in the NWSL, midfielder Sam Coffey.
Wiegman wasn’t far behind, and as ever there were echoes of the past as she stuck to her tried and tested methods, with Ella Toone replacing Kirby, a move seen so often during the European Championships.
England reached a point where they needed an injection of something as it was the U.S. creating the chances to get back in it, with Smith rolling an effort just wide of the far post, while Rodman fired over after working herself some space from a Rapinoe free kick.
It was hardly a surprise, yet still a bit of a disappointment, the second half didn’t quite live up to the first. An England side still coming back from a busy summer and the early weeks of the Barclays Women’s Super League and a U.S. side with the squad coming to the end of a long NWSL season, with many having one eye on the upcoming playoffs, as well as all the players enduring the release of the Yates report on the widespread misconduct in U.S. soccer and the NWSL.
Even the shots began to look tired as Stanway slashed at an effort from the edge of the box, similar to how Rodman had done the same minutes earlier.
Andonovski showed what his intentions for the rest of the match were as he handed a debut to 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson in her first senior camp, while Ashley Sanchez and Becky Sauerbrunn also came on for the final 10 minutes.
Before they could make their changes, VAR once again played its part, though this time less controversially as referee Riem Hussein somehow felt a shot from Rose Lavelle hit Hemp on the arm, rather than the backside. VAR swiftly intervened and Wembley was a happy place again.
After all that, it played out in somewhat of an anti-climax as the U.S. failed to create the necessary chances to overly bother England, and Wiegman’s unbeaten start (is it even a start anymore?!) continues.