Bronze rages against dying of light for England with James the rising star

<span>Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters

On a bitter Glasgow night when the thermometer dipped to -3C and freezing fog threatened to roll in from the Clyde, high summer in France seemed a parallel universe.

It also appeared a magnet, drawing Lauren James, Lucy Bronze, Beth Mead and co to ever greater heights as they strove to secure a chance of being in the hat for matches not merely in Paris but Marseille, Lyon, Nantes, Bordeaux, Saint-Étienne and Nice at next year’s Olympics.

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Minutes before the final whistle, a team who hoped to be reincarnated, temporarily, as Team GB in July and August, thought they were halfway there but, instead, late goals for the Netherlands against Belgium ensured the Dutch topped their Nations League group and qualified for February’s playoff semi-finals.

Despite destroying a very sorry Scotland 6-0, England’s hopes of becoming one of two European teams to join the Olympic hosts next summer evaporated. They won’t be returning to Nice as Team GB to revive happy memories of sunbathing on its pebbled beach during their run to the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup after all.

Both England and Scotland have travelled in very different directions since Phil Neville’s Lionesses beat their northern neighbours 2-1 in a reasonably close group-stage game on a humid June evening in the hills above Nice four years ago.

It’s the sort of landscape where the luxury villas perched above the stadium look in peril of sliding down those precipitous slopes, but at kick-off here England found themselves balanced on an infinitely more alarming sort of precipice.

Nations League away defeats to the Netherlands and Belgium dictated that the European champions faced ignominy, prompting the normally restrained Sarina Wiegman to resort to urging her players to “go wild” against Pedro Martínez Losa’s side.

It helped that after missing out on qualification for last summer’s World Cup a Scotland team relegated to Nations League B look in the grip of a deep malaise.

Martínez Losa’s defensive organisation was alarmingly haphazard as Mead reminded everyone how much the Lionesses have missed her dead-ball skills by delivering a superb corner from which Alex Greenwood headed England into an early lead.

It was a fine manoeuvre initiated by a forward starting her first international since rupturing an anterior cruciate ligament 13 months ago but Scotland’s utter failure to mark Greenwood did not inspire confidence in their capabilities.

Martínez Losa had evidently instructed his side to play out from the back but, in the face of England’s aggressive press, that proved ridiculously high-risk.

Scotland’s captain, Rachel Corsie, had described suggestions that her teammates might throw the match in the hope of being offered places in Team GB as “outrageous and disrespectful”, so goodness knows how many England might have scored had their opponents not been trying.

It speaks volumes that one of Scotland’s best openings came courtesy of a strong challenge from Bronze that sent Lisa Evans crashing in the penalty area.

Although the Barcelona right‑back got away with that one, Bronze, arguably, represents one of Wiegman’s biggest problems and greatest assets. A right-back no longer quite as quick as she was can be so gung ho, so reckless, that she gifts opponents goals.

But at her rampaging, thrillingly proactive best, Bronze remains a gamechanger, capable of raising the performances of those around her. It’s why Neville described her as “the world’s best player”. Wiegman’s predecessor also believed she would prolong her international career by morphing into a central midfielder and her failure to do so may yet shorten it appreciably.

Perhaps aware that, at 32 and with the scars on her knees a legacy of six operations, Bronze seemed to be raging against the dying of the light here. High on adrenaline, she was not so much a hybrid full-back as a total footballer, at one point bursting down the left-wing. Scotland simply could not cope with her.

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Ditto James. The sometimes unplayable Chelsea winger set England on course to overhaul the Netherlands’ initially superior goal difference after seeing her attempt to chip Lee Alexander from outside the area deflect beyond the goalkeeper. Then, a minute later, she went and did it again, expertly bending a shot between two defenders and into the top corner.

Although Cuthbert, a lone star striving intelligently in Scotland’s midfield, proved beyond doubt she was prioritising her country over Team GB, Mead soon scored an emotional fourth.

When Fran Kirby tapped in number five and Kirsty Hanson failed to capitalise on a Mary Earps error, France felt almost within touching distance. Then the Netherlands scored again. Bronze – who else? – attempted to propel Team GB across the Channel with a gloriously defiant last-gasp headed goal but, somehow, it was insufficient. Suddenly, France became a cruel chimera.