Women’s Nations League: England’s historic but heartbreaking 2023 summed up on extraordinary night

5 December 2023 0 By Total Football News
Lucy BronzeLucy Bronze scored England's 15th goal of their Nations League campaign with the final strike against Scotland

Lucy Bronze fell to her knees in celebration after scoring England's sixth goal at Hampden Park, which seemed to have sent the Lionesses to the finals of the inaugural Women's Nations League.

Minutes later the veteran right-back had fallen to the Glasgow turf with head in hands as news of the Netherlands' crucial fourth strike against Belgium filtered through.

It summed up the devastation that the Lionesses, despite thrashing their neighbours 6-0 on their own patch, had not done enough to reach the final four.

By extension, it means Team GB will not be playing at the Olympics in Paris next summer. The Nations League doubled as a qualifying competition and England - the nominated nation to qualify on behalf of Britain - needed to win Group A1 to stand a chance.

It is the first time that Team GB will not have a women's football team at an Olympics they have entered, after playing at London 2012 and in Tokyo two years ago.

"The Olympics is another huge tournament that every top player wants to be part of. It is a huge deal in the women's game, it is not comparable to the men," Arsenal defender Jen Beattie told BBC One.

"These England players would have wanted to be there to represent Team GB, and you can see the huge disappointment on the faces of the team after hearing that final result."

England's fate was unclear until the final seconds of their campaign had ticked away. They knew they had to win against Scotland and hope the Netherlands failed to do the same at home to Belgium - or that they defeated the Scots by three goals more than the Dutch margin of victory.

The Lionesses held up their end of the bargain by winning 6-0, and at full-time in Glasgow the Netherlands were only 3-0 up. There was still time to play in Tilburg however, and a 95th-minute strike made it four for the Dutch - enough to knock England out.

It sums up a historic but heartbreaking 2023 for England. They have broken new ground and played some sensational football - but ultimately have fallen just short.

Last summer, England thrilled in reaching the Women's World Cup final for the first time - only to lose to Spain in Sydney.

This winter, they launched a remarkable comeback against the Dutch at Wembley before a blitz of unstoppable attacking football against the Scots - only to be scuppered at the last.

England rediscover ruthless focus - too late

beth Mead scores for England against ScotlandBeth Mead scored on her first start for England since recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury

Whether or not the England players were aware of the score in Tilburg, after Netherlands went ahead against Belgium, England stepped up a gear with three quickfire goals.

Given the unusual circumstances around Olympic qualification, critics, cynics and conspiracy theorists may give a sideways look to these events. Some of this Scottish side would have had hopes of being part of the Team GB squad at Paris 2024 if England reached the Nations League final - although much of their defending would have been more at home in a park game than the Olympics.

But that is to do a disservice to the manner in which England took Scotland apart in their own backyard, a ruthless attacking display by a side stung by a testing Nations League campaign.

It started with a 2-1 victory over Scotland at Sunderland's Stadium of Light in which the Lionesses were fortunate not to concede a last-minute penalty while Kirsty Hanson hit the bar.

This was followed by a last-gasp defeat to the Netherlands in Utrecht, before back-to-back matches with Belgium. After a narrow 1-0 victory in Leicester, England were again well below par in losing 3-2 in Leuven to leave finals progression - and Olympic qualification - out of their hands.

Needing wins in their final two games to finish top of Group A1, at Wembley on Friday - and even then the list of permutations involved in progression was as long as your arm.

But this was an England side forced to refocus. No celebration followed the three goals against the Dutch, nor the first five strikes versus Scotland.

This is an England side who had been falling short of their remarkably high standards, but now had tangible aims regarding victory and goals to be scored - a task they set about with ferocity.

At the other end, Mary Earps - who blamed herself for the difficult task set for England in Glasgow following her error at Wembley for the second Dutch goal - kept England in the competition with a brilliant save in second-half stoppage time, seconds before Bronze scored the seemingly crucial sixth.

But it just wasn't quite enough.

"First and foremost Sarina Wiegman will be very proud of this team," former England striker Ellen White told BBC One.

"We can look back at the other games that England have played in this Nations League campaign, and discuss the ifs and the buts, but I am really proud of this group of players.

"It is a tough one. They scored six goals tonight and they still didn't top the group. It is just unbelievable!"

Sarina WiegmanSarina Wiegman has overseen four England defeats in 2023, including the World Cup final and two Nations League games

'Time to start building a succession plan?'

So what does the future hold for Wiegman's England? There will not be a third consecutive summer of Lionesses fever, after the delirious triumph of Euro 2022 or the heroic displays at the 2023 World Cup.

This is the first major bump in the road of the Wiegman era, and a blow to a team who have enjoyed inexorable growth since finishing third at the 2015 World Cup.

Yet while the immediate reaction may be worry over the disruption to momentum after two incredible summers, it could be a blessing in disguise.

England now have a free summer ahead after two years of non-stop action and injuries to some of their most important players.

Beth Mead was among the scorers at Hampden, a bright end to a tough year in which she missed the World Cup as one of several top female footballers to suffer an anterior cruciate ligament injury.

It could also allow Wiegman to experiment more with a squad which has often featured the same faces over the past two years, with England's next major tournament now not until Euro 2025 in Switzerland, at the earliest.

"There will be a lot of questions around the challenges that this Lionesses side has faced this year, certainly around the lack of rotation in the squad," former England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley told BBC 5 Live.

"There is such a plethora of talent coming through the younger age groups and maybe with some senior players starting to enter the twilight of their careers, is it time to start building in that succession plan for who will follow in their shoes?

"Ultimately if you think about the total number of caps compared to age it is quite a young squad, so I do think there is time. Maybe this disappointing result will give some more time, which is needed to bed in these players and get in more senior minutes for them. So maybe we can take a positive from the disappointment."

Not that this will be a comfort to Mead, Bronze and co. Another remarkable night for the Lionesses - but another case of so near, yet so far.


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