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A frustrating start to the UEFA Women's Nations League for the Lionesses.

England see themselves sat 3rd in group A1 after being tested by Scotland and facing defeat against the Netherlands, in the first round of UEFA Women’s Nations League fixtures.

The 2023/24 season sees the establishment of the UEFA Nations League in women’s international football. Being introduced into men’s international football in 2018 as a way to replace friendlies with more competitive fixtures, it has found its way into the Women’s international football calendar and will play a part in the qualifying process for the 2024 Paris Olympics and the 2025 European Championships. It aims to inspire a greater sporting and commercial interest into national team football.

The competition begins in a league format, in which teams are separated into 3 leagues based on their latest coefficient rankings. Each league splits the teams into groups of 3 or 4, where they will play each other in their groups twice, on a home and away basis, over the next few months. Following this, promotions and relegations across the leagues will be decided in addition to qualifications for the Nations League Finals. The first round of fixtures took place at the end of September 2023.

League A has a naturally competitive edge to it, as it is made up of the top ranked 16 teams split into 4 groups of 4; with matchday 1 producing some surprise results. England found themselves placed in Group A1 alongside Scotland, Belgium and the Netherlands and took home 3 points after hosting Scotland to a contested game in Sunderland, which ended 2-1.

England began with an impressive stride, in their first fixture since facing heartbreak in the World Cup final; the Lionesses enjoyed the majority of possession and had a comfortable first half, making some excellent advancements up pitch, however they were tested in the second. Later in the week, the side struggled against a ruthless Dutch side. They currently sit 3rd in group A1, following what was a disappointing performance from England, where the Netherland’s were able to take advantage of the Lionesses’ sloppiness. The Lionesses have now lost 2 of their last 3 games, however prior to their defeat down under to Spain, they had only lost 1 of their previous 38 fixtures. Are they facing World Cup hangover?

In their first Nations League fixture England’s chances came early on. 25 minutes in Rachel Daly headed home a corner, however the opener was ruled out as Chloe Kelly was caught offside. However it wasn’t long until the ball hit the back of the net again, as an intelligent movement saw Bronze direct a pinpoint cross from Zelem in midfield. An action-packed end to the half saw Hemp double England’s lead in the 45th minute with a powerful header at the back post, and just 2 minutes later Hanson picked up a ball from Emslie and impressed in front of goal down the other side of the pitch, to bring one back for Scotland. Scotland worked really well together and tested an English side which looked tired in the second half. The game became closely battled as Scotland were really trying to capitalise on their advancements into the final third, looking to cause upset with England losing their intensity.

The Lionesses then flew to Urecht for what turned out to be a tough game against Wiegman’s former team, the Netherlands. The Dutch started intently, dominating the half and testing Mary Earps on many occasions; England looked slow and they were able to take advantage of this. Lieke Martens opened the scoring for the Netherlands, after the ball was laid off at the edge of the box. Martens had space and time to deliver a curling effort into the top corner, catching England slacking defensively. They really struggled in the first half. A better second half saw the Lionesses create chances as they desperately tried to find the back of the net, however struggled to capitalise on challenging the goalkeeper and hit the post several times. England found their eventual opening as Russo picked up a deflected ball in the box and hit it first time, where it curled into the top right corner. The rest of the half was closely contested, however a last minute winner sealed England’s disappointment, where Renate Jansen broke through England’s backline and beat Mary Earps with a powerful right-footed strike.

Frustrations for England boss Sarina Weigman on her homecoming to the Netherlands, a defeat to her former side. She mentions the annoyance of not having VAR in the Nations League, stating that their first goal was “so obviously offside”, however this has got to be a wake-up call for the Lionesses; they were not clinical enough infront of goal, and looked tired throughout. Improvements needed going into their next Nations League fixtures, which come in the next international break, a double header against top of the table Belgium at the end of October.

Belgium had a positive start to the Nations League, a comeback after failing to qualify for the World Cup earlier this year. They saw victory over the Netherlands in injury time, where Blom caught the end of Wullaert’s corner to seal them the 3 points. After taking the lead against Scotland with a penalty, they weren’t able to keep their lead as Howard headed in an equaliser with the last kick of the game, so sit top of group A1 with 4 points. With some work to do, England return to Nations League action at the King Power Stadium in Leicester on October 27th.

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