Beth Mead capitalised on a goalkeeping error to fire England to a 1-0 victory over Portugal in Setubal this evening.
The Lionesses arrived in Portugal off the back of a run of no wins in five, with four of them being defeats but Phil Neville’s side managed to record a win albeit with a major element of fortune.
All of the positivity which Neville and his side had built up in the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019 seems to have been dwindling despite record interest and attendances for this autumn’s friendly fixtures.
They would have been hoping therefore to put their poor run behind them with victory over a side
26 places lower than them in the FIFA Women’s World rankings. It was an unconvincing display from England but thanks to a gift from home keeper Patricia Morais, they were still able to claw their way to victory.
Despite the result many will have wanted, disappointingly, it was more of the same in terms of
performance in the windy Estadio do Bonfim.
Lucy Bronze, half-Portuguese herself on her father’s side, was once again deployed in the centre of midfield and Rachel Daly deputised at right-back.
It was another slow, laboured performance which meant the Lionesses, sporting their ever-popular
crushed berry kit, maintained possession for long periods of the game but were unable to catch the
home side out as Portugal retained their defensive shape.
Every England fan will also have felt a twinge of anxiety every time Portugal shifted the ball out to
the wings and the travelling side did little to quell those concerns as they scrambled to clear the ball
from a couple of crosses in the opening stages.
Beth England, given her first Lionesses start, was holding the ball up well early on and nearly found
herself through on goal after 10 minutes but her touch let her down and the goalkeeper Morais was
able to smother the ball.
The best chance of the opening half fell the way of Phil Neville’s side at around the quarter hour
mark. Steph Houghton carried the ball out from the back and her fizzed ball was coolly left by Lucy Staniforth. Mead’s subsequent cross was inches away from England’s reach.
Staniforth started lively and her sharpness to the ball forced a foul from Figueira Pinto which produced the first booking. The Birmingham City midfielder continued her smart, intricate passing throughout the half, perhaps feeling she has something to prove now the reintroduction of Jordan Nobbs threatens her place in the squad.
Neville’s experiment to play Bronze in central midfield nearly paid dividends when was dragged
down whilst running onto a threw ball. Unfortunately, this was missed by the officials and no
penalty was given. Still England persevered and when the country’s namesake drove a left footed
cross along the six-yard area Nikita Parris looked certain to tap the ball in but for a last-second clearance from Monica Mendez.
After the interval, England seemed to have upped the tempo with some speedy one touch passing
yet Portugal were still able to get bodies behind the ball. Consequently, the Lionesses turned to
Keira Walsh for some creative invention, however, the numerous Hollywood balls she attempted over the top rarely found their target. The one time Walsh was able to get a decent delivery in there were three England players queuing up in the middle but none of them were able to convert it.
Jodie Taylor was subsequently brought on for Beth England on the 65th minute and very nearly scored with her first touch. A wonderfully threaded ball from Walsh found Taylor in behind the Portugal defence with only the keeper to beat but despite her excellent position, she seemed hesitant to pull the trigger, just like she was against Brazil. This allowed the Portuguese goalkeeper the opportunity to close down the Reign FC striker and the defenders could eventually clear their lines.
Taylor continued to find herself in good goalscoring situations but lacked that killer edge to put the ball beyond Morais in the Portugal goal. However, minutes later the goalkeeper would be her own undoing. After a short corner, Alex Greenwood floated in a left footed cross which looked harmless but a fumble from Morais as she attempted to catch the ball left her goal unguarded and Beth Mead reacted to score one of the easiest goals of her career. The Sporting CP player had not put a foot (or hand) wrong all game but this single lapse in focus would prove to be her teams undoing.
Going behind meant Portugal came out to press where previously they had sat back. This allowed England space and Lauren Hemp who having come on for her senior Lionesses debut, nearly capitalised. Cutting in from the right and purposefully driving towards goal, the Manchester City youngster tried to whip the ball with her left foot but she only found the side-netting.
England were very nearly made to rue their missed opportunities when the referee award the home
side a contentious free-kick just outside the penalty area. Second half substitute Claudia Neto stepped up and guided the free kick over the wall and onto the crossbar. It was a hearts in mouths moment for the Lionesses as the ball bounced down and looked for all the world that it was going to rebound in off the diving Ellie Roebuck’s back. However, the England goalkeeper, who had been untested up until that point, gratefully clutched on to the bouncing ball and brought to an end the last action of the match.
This result will merely paper over the issues that still plague Neville’s side as they created very
little in terms of clear chances despite having over 70% possession. The statistics will tell you it was a
commanding performance with England having 19 shots compared to Portugal’s three but the reality is that they are still lacking creatively when they need to break down teams that don’t chase the ball. The only saving grace for manager Neville is that with qualification for the UEFA Women’s EURO 2021 already guaranteed he can afford these lacklustre performances in order to build towards something greater.
Nevertheless, nearly two years into Neville’s Lionesses tenure and with Germany at Wembley just over the horizon you’d hope for them to start performing like the team everyone knows they can be sooner rather than later.
By Ryan Lee Gregory (@ryanleegregory)