England edge Wembley thriller with USA to lay down World Cup marker

Georgia Stanway celebrates after restoring England’s lead from the spot (The FA via Getty Images)
Georgia Stanway celebrates after restoring England’s lead from the spot (The FA via Getty Images)

A game that had almost everything was, rather appropriately, many things at once. It was a celebration, a show of solidarity for much more serious issues, and a marker for the World Cup through another England win.

The players will of course say that 2-1 victory doesn’t matter too much given everything else going on around this landmark match, but the competitors in them will also know it will frame much of what is to come on the pitch over the next few months.

It was an issue dominating the present that framed the game itself, with both teams wore armbands to stand in solidarity with sexual abuse survivors, as the USA team so creditably played amid the fall-out from the Sally Yates report detailing emotional and sexual abuse in the country’s domestic league.

This itself came amid a celebration of the past, as England celebrated 50 years of the national team. As Megan Rapinoe said before the match, though, a natural love for the game and competitiveness takes over.

That’s what was so visible here, in a fine England victory. It was a superb game between the two best sides in the world, the first half especially enchanting, as Sophia Smith again showed she may well grow into the best player in the world.

The fact it was even better than expected also made it all the more unpredictable, so fittingly going right to the end.

The two are almost certain to go right to the end of next summer’s World Cup. This may well be recalled ahead of the final. It was why it could prove so instructive.

Because, if this meeting between European and world champions was so clearly an encounter between the two strongest sides on the planet, it was also a useful reminder of remaining flaws that need to be worked on before the summer. Many of them come at the back, although that only emphasised the qualities further forward.

England do badly miss Leah Williamson in their own defence, and in a manner beyond the quality player she is. The Arsenal defender is literally central to playing the ball out from the back. There were repeated warnings for England before Smith’s goal.

The USA meanwhile just looked open there, surprisingly easy to get at. England’s opening goal was helped by some soft defending, but the execution was still exquisite. A flowing move involved two fine passes from Stanway and then Beth Mead, the latter curving in such an inviting ball. Alana Cook didn’t know how to deal with it, but Lauren Hemp did, finishing tidily.

Lauren Hemp slots home from close range (Getty)
Lauren Hemp slots home from close range (Getty)

England weren’t quite so sharp in their passing at the other end. USA had clearly prepared for that, given they pressed the backline - and especially Mary Earps - relentlessly. There were a few desperate hacks before Stanway was given the ball in a thankless position on 28 minutes. Lindsey Horan was on her back just in front of the area and predictably won it, setting up Smith to rasp the ball into the corner.

The Portland Thorns attacker had already found her rhythm by then and was becoming joyous to watch. There were moments when she was fed what seemed an aimless ball only for it to stick to her, before she turned an innocuous passage into a real moment of danger. One reverse pass to Trinity Rodman in the second half was divine.

There didn’t seem a moment of danger when a set-piece fell to Lucy Bronze a few minutes later but it was at that instance the defender dropped her head, and substitute Hailie Mace raised her foot. The play was initially cleared only for VAR to call it back, and Riem Hussein to point to the spot.

Stanway showed she hadn’t been affected by her earlier error as she slotted in the penalty. England were ahead after a call that can be described as marginal, but not as much as what was to follow.

The USA actually put on a grand exhibition of what they are capable of, only to be ruled out by the most minor step forward.

Smith was again integral although this time from out wide, as she surged down the right before playing the ball into the centre. With England’s defence exposed and chasing back, Megan Rapinoe dummied a flick, which left Rodman to roll the ball in.

It was such a gloriously flowing move - only to be stopped short. Rodman had been fractionally offside.

The game remained in the balance. We saw different qualities of the two sides in the second half, as it went from an open game to a tactical one. That only reflected the importance of victory.

The attacks now came from sudden breaks rather than constant surges. Smith was always probing, England always looking to break.

There was a moment of tension when a penalty was given for what was adjudged to be a handball. On the VAR, however, it was all too clear that it was just a block.

It meant England won 2-1, in a landmark win, but it’s still not clear to see who is actually the better team.

That enriched this occasion, and will surely enrich next year’s World Cup. Both teams have so much. They ensured this match had almost everything. England, however, have the victory.