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Frustration as Olympic hopes disappear: Lionesses' Nations League round-up

A chaotic Nations League run sees England fail to advance into finals, crushing Team GB's hopes of Paris 2024. With mixed performances throughout their six fixtures, what went wrong for the Lionesses?


The first season of the Women's Nations League has been nothing short of entertaining. The Lionesses were placed into League A, competitive in nature, consisting of the top 16 UEFA ranked teams split into four groups of four. Finding themselves drawn into group A1 along with Scotland, The Netherlands and Belgium, the Lionesses were to be challenged in what turned to be a fairly messy campaign.


Following their heartbreaking World Cup defeat to Spain in August England looked to promptly bounce back, however faced major struggles in fixtures throughout the campaign. With Olympic hopes on the line, as the winner of the group qualifies into the semi-finals, where the winners of this gain qualification into the 2024 Olympics in Paris.


They saw a closely contested game against Scotland to open the competition, followed by struggle in a battled fixture against the ever-confident Netherlands. After that came a double header against a spirited Belgian side, where both teams battled in what was a tight match, England took the edge in the first fixture, yet found themselves outplayed in the other. An impressive comeback against the Netherlands at Wembley followed, where the Lionesses scored their winner in injury time, however the campaign was to end in dramatic fashion as the final standings were out of the control of the Lionesses. They beat Scotland impressively, 6-0 however missed out in qualifying into the semi-finals of the competition down to narrow goal difference margins.


Gameday One: England 2 - 1 Scotland

The Lionesses began their Nations League campaign against home nation rival, Scotland. Sarina Wiegman's side showed intent from the go as they began with a stride, comfortably holding possession and building intelligent movements around Scotland, who were slow to find their rhythm. Maintaining control in the first half England created many early chances, where the initial opener came 25 minutes in as Rachel Daly was clincial in front of goal to head home play from a corner, however Chloe Kelly was caught offside and accordingly the goal was ruled out. It didn't take long for England to push themselves ahead, as Zelem picked up the ball in midfield and delivered a pinpoint cross over Scotland's backline to Bronze, who gracefully headed into the bottom-left corner. The intelligently worked move gave the Lionesses the lead.


As Scotland moved into a flow, they began to test Mary Earps, yet were unable to make use of these occasional advancements. In the closing moments of the half, excitement picked up as Lauren Hemp directed a header at the backpost to double England's lead at the 45th minute mark. Two minutes later, Hanson found the back of the net for Scotland, having impressively fed off Emslie's movement into the box, tightening the gap between the two sides going into the half. The second half became closely contested as Scotland raised energy levels and England tired. Working very well together Scotland desperately attempted to capitalise on their advancements up the pitch, wanting to cause upset to their historical rivals, testing England as the game became tight. However England held up as the game finished 2-1 and took home the three points.


Gameday Two: Netherlands 2 - 1 England

A trip to Utrecht followed England's narrow win over Scotland, where Wiegman's team were challenged by her former side. The Netherlands began confidently and easily took control of the game as England looked slow; struggling to bounce back from their poor second half performance against the Scots. Failing to find themselves in the game, England struggled with intensity and the Dutch were able to capitalise on this. They had a particularly poor first half, with Mary Earps being challenged on many occasions. Having the edge on the game, the Netherland's opening came as Lieke Martens struck a curling effort into the top corner as she picked up the ball on the edge of the box, being given the space and the time to do so as England slacked defensively.


The second half was much more positive for the Lionesses as they created chances, searching for the back of the net. They struggled to capitalise on these however, hitting the post several times and forcing comfortable saves from the Dutch keeper. They found an eventual opening in the 64th minute, as Alessia Russo curled a deflected ball into the top right corner, from close range. Their equaliser sparked a tight end to the contested half, with both teams desperate to find the back of the net again. In the closing moments of the game the Netherlands found a breakthrough, which left England dazed. Renate Jansen broke through Englands backline and beat Mary Earps, hitting the top corner from the edge of the box with a powerful right footed strike. A disappointing performance from England, ultimately down to their lack of intensity, inability to be clinical in front of goal and sluggish defence, meant that they sat 3rd in the group at this stage. Were these signs of a World Cup hangover?


Gameday Three: England 1 - 0 Belgium

A comeback from England was well required to keep their dreams of success in the Nations League alive. Hosting top of the group Belgium, they were to look past their previous frustrations as they began the fixture positively, advancing up the pitch and putting threatening passes into the box almost immediately. Belgium also showed their intention early, as they played with purpose and forced Earps into making a spectacular save within the first 10 minutes. England took an early lead courtesy of Lauren Hemp, as she struck Bright's deflected shot off of the post fiercely into the back of the net. Keeping up their attacking flare, the Lionesses were able to create several more chances, challening the Belgian defence, which were narrowly missed. They dominated possesion, fabricating some enjoybale football throughout the half, being able to deal with the occassion threat from the Belgian forwards.


The second half took a more leisurely approach, with the Lionesses slowing down their intensity, depsite this they continued to pose an attacking threat creating several chances for themselves. It is clear, however, that England needed to be more clinical in converting these chances, as the game remained stood at 1-0. Credit also has to be put for the Belgian back-line who were key in containing England's attack throughout the game and keeping the scoreline down. England came away with the three points, having played significantly better football than in the previous fixture against the Netherlands; they would then look to continue this stride in the reverse fixture.


Gameday Four: Belgium 3 - 2 England

The reverse fixture saw England begin well, mirroring their intensity from their previous meeting, a few days prior. They enjoyed the majority of possession and were looking to get an early lead, however it was Belgium that saw themselves ahead consequent to an awarded free kick, as Chloe Kelly was caught for a handball. De Neve curled her effort over the wall and into the back of the net, and gave Belgium an early lead, nine minutes in.


England attempted to return to their flow, however the game was stopped shortly after, for 13 minutes, as defender Greenwood took a worrying blow in what turned to be a serious head injury. After recieving medical attention, she was stretchered off and gameplay continued. Shortly after, Belgium suffered their own injury scare, where their goalscorer was substituted. Gameplay continued and England found their opening; Lucy Bronze forcefully headed into the back of the net from distance, as she caught the end of Chloe Kelly's free kick and it was level again. Belgium struggled with the departure of De Neve which allowed England to rework and continue to put pressure onto the Belgian defence in the closing moments of the half. Delivering an impressive ball from midfield, Walsh switched to Hemp on the left wing who expertly cut into the box then squared the ball to Fran Kirby. On the edge of the box, she struck across goal and scored in her return for England after 385 days.


The hosts didn't wait to get back into the game, as captain Wullaert made broke through England's backline in a well-timed run, recieving the ball which was poorly given away by Stanway, and fired a right-footed shot to beat Earps, early into injury time before the half. The second half began contested, with both teams challenging each others' defences and searching for the edge. Belgium were able to take the game away, as late into the game they were awarded a penalty as Stanway was penalised for handball in the box. The Belgian captain was clincial and hit the back of the net with a fierce strike, beating Earps who dived the right way. Their loss dropped England back down into third place, which placed them in a position of uncertainty going into the final two fixtures, where the remaining fixtures determined England's final standings. Once again it was due to a sloppiness in the way that they play, giving away the ball too easily and looking slow in possession. Moreover, the inability to be clinical in front of goal.


Gameday Five: England 3 - 2 Netherlands

In order to keep their Olympic hopes alive, England needed a result at Wembley against the Netherlands. Beginning with energy, at the ground where they saw success last year, the Lionesses were eager to begin intently. Making movements into the Netherland's defensive third, they were able to challenge some early shots. Their energy faded as shortly following the Netherlands found their breakthrough, with Beerensteyn firing Pelova's well delivered ball straight past Mary Earps. England struggled to contain the Netherlands as they upped their intensity, threatening England's backline and it wasn't long until they got their second. It was Beerensteyn, again, who picked up a bouncing ball and struck a low shot, beating England's defence and Mary Earps at the near post, and England found themselves 2-0 down 35 minutes in.



The second half began with England needing a big comeback and the game becoming increasingly contested, the Lionesses were really pushing the advance up the pitch and playing with a new intensity, attempting to keep their Olympic hopes alive. Just before the hour mark, England found their opening when Stanway reached the end of Lauren James' brilliant delivery. Two minutes later, Hemp struck from the edge of the box to bring it level, with just under half an hour left to search for a winner. The game was seen out in a desperate manner, with England eagerly searching for the back of the net. It was looking unlikely as the game entered injury time, but continuing with energy James fired a cross into the back post where Ella Toone had made an intelligent run and fired the ball past the Dutch keeper. Wembley erupted in a similar manner to that of the Euros final the previous year.


Taking the three points, England had not lost their hopes of qualification yet, however the final standings remained out of their control. Their outcome was dependant on the other fixture in the group, Netherlands vs Belgium. As it stood England needed to beat Scotland by more than four goals than the Netherlands' margin of victory, if they were to beat belgium.


Gameday Six: Scotland 0 - 6 England

With the Lionesses in need of scoring a lot of goals in their final fixture of the Women's Nations League group stages, the team brough energy and intensity from the start. It was clear to see that they were playing with their intention in mind, as they advanced up the pitch to begin creating chances. They took an early opening 12 minutes in, solidifying their purpose in this game, where Alex Greenwood found the end of Beth Mead's corner and easily beat the goalkeeper. It was game on for England, with Lauren James showing her quality as she picked up the ball on the just outside the area, shifted onto her left and hit a powerful shot. Taking a deflection on its path, it hit the back of the net, then seconds later James struck again, this time with her opposite foot. Picking out the corner, she superbly fired from the edge of the box and kept England's hopes of qualifications alive, as the Lionesses found their flow. Closing the half, Beth Mead gave England their 3rd as she scored her first goal since returning into the England set-up after an ACL injury destroyed her World Cup dreams. James cast a ball into the box which Mead picked up and beat Gibson at the near post.


Scotland weren't afraid to battle in this fixture however, as they took possession where they could and created attacking movements where they forced Earps into making a number of saves. Despite their efforts, they couldn't break through this focused, energised english side who continued to dominate throughout the second half. England used their momentum to continue creating attacking flows on their desperate search for additional goals. Shortly after the second-half began, the Lionesses scored their fourth when Fran Kirby picked up the ball in the area and had no trouble slotting home past the keeper. Almost having reached their goal margin, the Lionesses continued to challenge Scotland's defence and forced Gibson into making some saves, however their forward thinking play left gaps in defence, which Scotland challenged yet were not clincial enough to capitalise on. England were fortunate in this aspect.


The game began to come to a close, with it looking like England had done just enough. However there was to be a dramatic close to this campaign, as news broke that the Netherlands had scored their third against Belgium, Egurrola firing through in the 91st minute. Without letting the nerves hinder their momentum, England looked to do all they could to extend their league and sensationally found an opening. It was Ella Toone sending the ball across the box to find Bronze at the back post, who made an intelligent run to forcefully head past Gibson, to give them their 6th. Their emphatic display showed their determination and you could not fault their efforts in this fixture.


Ultimately, their campaign finished in dramatic fashion, as following the full-time whistle England had an anxious wait as the Netherlands vs Belgium fixture went into a long period of injury time. It wasn't meant to be for the Lionesses this time, as the news broke that the Netherlands had scored an additional goal late into stoppage time, to beat Belgium 4-0.


Heads dropped and disappointment emerged. Despite an emphatic, ruthless performance against scotland, their previous struggles were to haunt them as they saw their hopes of Olympic qualification ripped away from them, as a result of narrow goal difference margins. The Netherlands topped the group and advanced into the semi-finals of the Women's Nations League.




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