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England finally on right track after Leah Williamson speech sparks crucial France win

England players celebrate beating France
-Credit: (Image: Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)


Ahead of England’s decisive EURO 2025 qualifier against France on Tuesday night, captain Leah Williamson decided to take matters into her own hands.

The Lionesses had been beaten by Les Bleues at St James’ Park just four days prior to their trip across the Channel and were facing the distinct possibility of having to qualify for next year's tournament finals via the playoffs. A victory at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard was required to keep Sarina Wiegman’s side within touching distance of their group’s top two spots and revive belief in their ability to defend their European crown in Switzerland next summer.

So, with the team in desperate need of a morale boost, Williamson called a meeting. And, whatever the Arsenal star said in her rallying address paid dividends for the Lionesses as they defeated Herve Renard’s side on their own turf to send their rivals a potent reminder of their title-winning credentials.

“Leah just rounded us all up and we said this week we weren’t satisfied with the way it’s been,” Georgia Stanway - who opened the scoring in France - said after the game. “We need to up our level.

“We know it will take an even better, faster, more physically stronger team and more technical team to win the Euros next year. Today is a massive step in the right direction.”

Indeed, England’s display in Saint-Etienne was a marked improvement on their recent showings, arguably constituting their best performance since last summer’s World Cup semi-final win over Australia. After an end-to-end start, Stanway got the Lionesses off the mark with a trademark rocket from distance before Alessia Russo’s header gave the visitors some much-needed breathing space heading into half-time.

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

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A coolly-converted spot-kick from Kadidiatou Diani 18 minutes from time set up a nervy end to the match after Williamson was penalised for a trip on Grace Geyoro. But England managed to hang on to claim a priceless win, with Hannah Hampton - deputising for the injured Mary Earps - pulling off a stunning save to deny Marie-Antoinette Katoto at the death.

"We wanted to show our standards, we wanted to show where we want to go as a team. We saw that." Russo told BBC Radio 5 Live.

"We knew there was no other thing than three points. We knew it was business. As soon as we scored, we went to get the ball to start again. We’re England, we’re the champions of this tournament. Our standards probably haven’t been where we want them to be."

Certainly, it has been a challenging year for the Lionesses, who have suffered a number of setbacks since losing to Spain in the World Cup final last August. Defeats to Belgium and the Netherlands in the autumn put paid to their ambitions of qualifying for this summer’s Olympics while they were forced to settle for a point at home to Sweden to kickstart their Euros qualifying campaign in April.

Even in their subsequent win over the Republic of Ireland, Wiegman’s side looked some way off their best and they were similarly lacklustre in their first leg of their double-header against France. Beth Mead had put the hosts ahead on Tyneside before two set-piece goals saw Les Bleues come from behind to clinch the three points.

Manchester United midfielder Ella Toone later claimed the Lionesses had been the better side but had been undone by two costly lapses in concentration while Wiegman branded the defeat “unnecessary”.

And while the England boss stopped short of describing the reverse fixture a must-win - “it’s a want-to-win,” she told reporters in her pre-match press conference - Sweden’s late triumph over Ireland in the early kick-off further exacerbated the need for the Lionesses to claim the three points.

It was a surprise, then, that Wiegman made only one change on Tuesday and even that was enforced, with No.1 Earps having picked up a minor hip injury in Newcastle last week. Hampton, as she did when she came off the bench at St James’ Park, impressed between the sticks, commanding her area well and regularly setting England on the attack with her pinpoint distribution.

The Chelsea star’s recent form for both club and country presents Wiegman with a welcome conundrum and it remains to be seen whether the goalkeeper has done enough to displace Earps in the starting lineup when both players are fully fit.

Perhaps the biggest shock at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard was Wiegman’s decision to stick with a centre-back pairing of Williamson and Millie Bright. The duo excelled at the heart of the England defence at EURO 2022 but both have seen their playing time hampered by injury over the past 12 months and it showed on Friday as the pair struggled starring alongside each other for the first time since February 2023.

Considering Manchester City centre-back Alex Greenwood has been in excellent form of late, it seemed strange that the England boss opted to persist with the same backline on Tuesday evening. But Wiegman was ultimately vindicated for her decision as both Bright and Williamson turned in improved showings in their second meeting with Renard’s side.

Higher up the pitch, Russo shone in the No. 9 role, proving a constant thorn in France’s side and helping relieve the pressure on her defence as Diani and co. pushed for a late leveller. Alongside her, Lauren Hemp impressed on the left flank, setting up both goals and once again proving why she is England’s most important player.

Collectively, the Lionesses looked like a team reborn, handing France their first home defeat in 21 matches and securing a first victory away to Les Bleues in 51 years. "There was a bit of extra fight," defender Jess Carter reflected at the full-time whistle. "The standards haven't been good enough for a while. It's not out of a lack of trying but we just haven't found something else to lift us when things aren't necessarily going our way.

"We've got to keep fighting and grind our way through it, which is what this team has shown we can do. That was the difference - the fight. (Going forward) I think the mindset’s got to be even more aggressive – we’ve got to do even better, we can’t take our foot off the gas at all. Today was just a step in the right direction, we’ve got to improve on this performance.”

Indeed, it is far from job done for the Lionesses. They have five weeks to recover before they take on Ireland at Norwich’s Carrow Road, with Wiegman’s side set to conclude their qualifying campaign against Sweden in Gothenburg on July 16.

Their assignment is clear: Win both of those games and book their place at EURO 2025 or else risk taking their chances in the playoffs. There is still a long way to go until next summer’s tournament finals but, after a tricky year, it finally feels like the Lionesses are on the right track.