Beth Mead continued to stamp on her disappointment at missing out on a place at the Olympic Games last summer by opening England’s account at the home Women’s European Championship in a 1-0 defeat of Austria in front of a record crowd at Old Trafford.
Mead, who has said her goalscoring form for club and country has been fuelled by the frustration of being left out of the Team GB squad for the Tokyo Games, is the Lionesses’ top scorer under their new manager, Sarina Wiegman, who was recruited from the 2017 tournament holders the Netherlands.
In front of a buzzing 68,871 fans England were made to work hard against an organised and dangerous Austria side that reached the semi‑finals of Euro 2017 but Mead was the difference, flicking the ball narrowly over the line in style to give England a first-half lead.
Perhaps it was the pressure of the occasion, or the emotion of it, but England began on the back foot and Austria, with No 10 Laura Feiersinger at the heart of their play, pinned the host nation in their own half for much of the first 10 minutes.
Wiegman’s decision to bench Manchester City centre-back Alex Greenwood and play her captain, Leah Williamson, in place of her alongside Millie Bright was immediately being tested. It held up, just, as the Lionesses steadied.
It was the dynamic attacking midfield pairing of Georgia Stanway and Fran Kirby that would provide the impetus for England.
In the 17th minute they had a goal to steady the nerves and relieve the pressure on the backline and Kirby, who was touch-and-go to make the tournament after she missed the end of the domestic season with a severe fatigue problem, showed her value to England’s campaign.
She dinked the ball into the run of Mead who chested it down before lifting it over her Arsenal teammate Manuela Zinsberger and just over the line before Carina Wenninger hooked it away. There was time for a first ever VAR check at a women’s European Championship but the goalline technology review allowed it to stand.
Austria had perhaps been hoping to race out of the blocks and shock England with an early goal, but with plan A out the window it was time for the more familiar, and defensive, plan B.
As they camped back in their own half Austria were lucky not to be two or three down at the halfway mark. Another deft flick from Chelsea’s Kirby found winger Lauren Hemp, whose cross was glanced narrowly wide by England record goalscorer Ellen White. In the last action of the half Kirby combined with Hemp again, clipping the ball to the Manchester City player who swapped on to her left, allowing enough black-shirted defenders to recover.
In England’s pre-tournament friendly with the Netherlands the Lionesses had struggled to find their feet and they fell behind for the first time under Wiegman, before pulling a goal back before half-time. Keira Walsh said that at the break the manager had told them: “You are all great players, you just need to relax.” Wiegman’s words had settled the side and with fresh legs on the pitch they scored four in the second half to crush the Dutch.
With similar words likely ringing in their ears, England looked far more settled in themselves in the second half under the floodlights of Old Trafford. Just past the hour, on marched the Manchester United duo Alessia Russo and Ella Toone with the City winger Chloe Kelly, in place of White, Kirby and Mead. England’s biggest weapon in this competition is perhaps the quality of the players available off the bench.
With the stakes high, and an opponent much more used to not having the ball, England struggled to carve their way through.
A blistering run from Kelly, who cut in from the right before shooting wide while under pressure, provided perhaps one of the best chances of the half.
The longer the hosts went without extending their lead the more confident the Austrians grew and, with 12 minutes to play, Barbara Dunst worked her way past Lucy Bronze before forcing a fine save from Mary Earps who, at full stretch, pushed the effort wide.
In the end, Mead’s strike was enough. Up next, though, is a Norway side spearheaded by the Champions League record goalscorer Ada Hegerberg who will provide the sternest test of England’s defence in their bid to progress to the knockout stages.