An anxious wait, then complete heartbreak. No one could question the effort, the heart or the drive of Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses in this game, but scoring six goals against Scotland was not enough to close the goal difference gap on the Netherlands, because the Dutch scored a fourth against Belgium deep in added time to secure top spot and progress from their Nations League group ahead of England.
It was an extraordinary mountain and a Lauren James masterclass and gut-busting display from Lucy Bronze were not enough to lift them to the summit. The damage had been done in the preceding games, two poor goals conceded against the Dutch at Wembley, a 3-2 defeat in Belgium in October and a 2-1 loss to the Netherlands in September, will be full of regrets. However, there will be what‑ifs either way, the first goal conceded in Utrecht appearing offside in the buildup.
It meant a back and forth of goals scored by England against Scotland and the Netherlands in their win over Belgium was necessary in the final round of fixtures. A showdown.
There will be questions about Scotland’s efforts, a defensive collapse at Hampden Park almost helping England towards earning a place for Team GB at the Paris Olympics, but that would be unfair. The gulf in class between the European champions, ranked fourth in the world, and their neighbours to the north, ranked 23rd, is clear and the manager, Pedro Martínez Losa, has been unconvincing in charge.
There were two changes to the England side that came from two goals down to earn Friday’s late 3-2 win against the Netherlands that had kept hopes of progression alive. Beth Mead was returned to the starting lineup for the first time since suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury just over a year ago, having proved her worth coming off the bench at half-time against the Dutch to insert some directness into England’s play, and Esme Morgan replaced Jess Carter.
Martínez Losa swapped four players from the side that earned a 1-1 draw with Belgium on Friday, with Lee Alexander notably replacing the former England international Sandy MacIver in goal.
Wiegman had urged her players to “go wild from the first minute” against Scotland, cautioning “but you don’t want to get erratic” and England came out of the blocks searching for an early goal that would assert their authority on the tie. If there was any doubt about Scotland’s intentions against England, with Bronze calling accusations that Scotland players might feel conflicted with the possibility of Olympic qualification on the line for them as much as for England “the rudest thing I’ve ever heard” and Scotland’s captain, Rachel Corsie, calling it “disrespectful” and “outrageous” those were put to bed, temporarily at least, in the opening three minutes, with Bronze clattered into late twice as Scotland looked to make an early impression.
If England had played well for the opening 10 minutes against the Dutch only to be sucker-punched on the counter in the 12th minute, against Scotland there was no risk of that. Instead, the visiting team took the lead to swing the pressure on to the Dutch, Mead’s corner sent in by an unmarked Greenwood.
Moments later Lisa Evans was down in the box under pressure from Bronze but appeals for a penalty were waved away with the right-back having not caught the forwards legs.
That rare foray forward was urged on by a vocal Scotland crowd, in which interesting conversations could be heard. After Lauren Hemp raced free on the right a hopeful “Come on Lauren” was met with a thick, cheery Scottish “Shut up!” behind the press box.
If it was friendly in the stands it was far less so on the pitch. England went close to a second, with the Dutch having taken the lead against Belgium, when James weaved into the box before delivering to Hemp at the far post who lashed her effort off the base of a post from close range.
Eight minutes later they doubled their lead. Mead’s corner was cleared and sent back in by the Arsenal forward only to be cleared again. But while England players appealed for handball, James sent the ball goalward and it took a heavy deflection that wrongfooted Alexander and flew in.
It wasn’t pretty, but England were clawing away at the goal difference gap. A minute later James delivered in more characteristic style, curling a wonderful effort into the top corner from the edge of the area.
In added time at the end of the half, James turned provider of the goal that put England top of the group once more, sweeping a cross to Mead at the far post for the forward to bring down and fire past a helpless Alexander.
The goal that gave England a cushion came shortly after the restart, Georgia Stanway beating Corsie to the byline before sending the ball into the middle for Fran Kirby to turn in from close range. The breathing room didn’t last long, though, with the Netherlands scoring once more.
There was almost disaster for England when Earps failed to collect from the feet of Kirsty Hanson, but the Scotland forward sent her effort wide of the empty net with the angle closing.
An added-time save of a header from the substitute Martha Thomas at full stretch by Mary Earps kept England in it. The Netherlands having scored in the 91st minute, Bronze’s powering header meant England were back in for two minutes, until they were out, the Dutch scoring in the 95th minute to crush the Lionesses while they stood in a huddle waiting for news of the other game’s result, the pain sweeping across their faces as it came through.