Arsenal's Alessia Russo delivers timely reminder as England seal EURO qualifying win in France

Russo scored in England's 2-1 win over France
-Credit: (Image: Photo by Harriet Lander - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

As Lauren Hemp's tantalising cross sailed into the penalty area at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, Alessia Russo made sure it was third time lucky.

After spurning two great chances to give England the lead in their decisive EURO 2025 qualifier against France, Arsenal forward Russo made no mistake with her deft header which bounced past the helpless Pauline Peyraud-Magnin to double the Lionesses' advantage in Saint-Etienne. It was the goal her sublime first-half display had deserved; a timely reminder of her abundant talents after a season in which her form for both club and country has been the subject of intense external scrutiny.

In Russo's own words, the 2023/24 campaign has been "tough". Having been at the centre of arguably the most protracted transfer saga in Women's Super League (WSL) history, the striker has, at times, struggled since joining Arsenal from Manchester United last summer.

"I have learned a lot about myself as a player and as a person," she told BBC Sport back in March. "It has been tough at times, but as a player at a new club you want to be able to contribute as much as you can, then you find your feet."

England's collective slump in form since last summer's Women's World Cup has also prompted questions about whether Russo has the credentials to be the long-term heir to her Ellen White's highly-coveted No. 9 shirt. Certainly, after the Lionesses suffered a narrow defeat to France at St James' Park on Friday night, there were calls for manager Sarina Wiegman to blood some fresh attacking talent in Saint-Etienne.

As it was, though, the Dutchwoman made just the one change to the side that started on Tyneside, with Chelsea goalkeeper Hannah Hampton coming in for the injured Mary Earps. It was a controversial call but one which paid dividends for the Lionesses as they battled to a 2-1 victory which keeps their hopes of automatic qualification for next summer's tournament finals alive.

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It was an impressive display - arguably England's best since last summer's World Cup semi-final victory over Australia. Russo excelled on that balmy August night in Sydney and it was a similar story against the French; the forward's tenacity, ingenuity and impeccable hold-up play helping the Lionesses get the better of Herve Renard's side.

It was an end-to-end start at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, with Ella Toone going close before Lyon forward Kadidiatou Diani steered an effort just wide of the post. Russo should have made it 1-0 after Arsenal teammate Beth Mead teed her up in the 18-yard box but the striker was unable to direct her shot on target.

Russo did, however, have a big part to play in England's opener, holding the ball up brilliantly and picking out Lauren Hemp, who was able to find Georgia Stanway in acres of space on the edge of the area. The Bayern Munich midfielder did brilliantly well to plant the ball beyond the reaches of Peyraud-Magnin to give the visitors the lead inside 21 minutes.

The Lionesses almost went 2-0 up when captain Leah Williamson's sumptuous ball from deep found Lucy Bronze, whose volleyed first-time cross was met by Russo at the far post but a fine save from the France goalkeeper kept the hosts in the game. It wasn't long, though, before Russo's header gave Wiegman's side some much-needed breathing space, the Arsenal star's 19th England goal ensuring the Lionesses went into the break with a well-deserved lead.

France did have their chances. Marie-Antoinette Katoto should have found the back of the net after being set up by Wendie Renard on the stroke of half-time while Selma Bacha had Hampton worried with an excellent long-range strike shortly after the restart.

Ultimately, it was Diani who halved the deficit from the penalty spot after Grace Geyoro was felled by Williamson inside the area. It set up a nervy last 15 minutes in Saint-Etienne, with Katoto drawing a sublime save from Hampton in the 90th minute.

But England hung on to claim a priceless victory, winning their first game away to France in 51 years and handing Les Bleues their first defeat on home soil in 21 matches. Though the Lionesses remain third in their qualifying group, it is only Sweden's marginally superior goal difference that keeps them ahead of the European champions, meaning it is all to play for in the final two qualifiers in July.

"I think we got our standards back to where we wanted them," Russo told ITV Sport after the game. "There's still parts that we'll work on for sure but that's a performance that we want to keep going forward now. We know the level is higher than ever and we know that to do anything at the Euros, to even qualify, is going to be harder than ever."

On her own performance, she added: "For me, I'm just trying to work hard. Strikers get judged on their goals and obviously that's massively important to me and I always want to keep working on that. But I'm learning there's so much more to the (No. 9 role) so I'm just trying to work on my game each day and hopefully I'll see it come to life a little bit."

While it's clear that neither Russo nor England are the finished article quite yet, Tuesday's performance inspires confidence that the Lionesses still have what it takes to get back to their very best. Certainly, if the Arsenal forward is able to carry this form into the remaining qualifiers, Wiegman's side might well be able to book their tickets to Switzerland before the summer is out.