Call off the inquest, turn off the alarms: the real Lionesses are back. How motivated are England to qualify for next summer’s Olympics on behalf of Team GB? Well, let this thrilling second-half comeback against the Netherlands at Wembley answer that question. With their hopes of reaching the Nations League finals on the line and down 2-0 against the Dutch, England produced a stunning turnaround to claim a vital win, with Ella Toone steering in a dramatic stoppage-time winner to rescue the Lionesses from a nightmare night.
That was what Sarina Wiegman’s side looked set for after what was perhaps their poorest first-half performance under the Dutch manager. Wiegman’s former side were far sharper, far hungrier, but the Lionesses showed all of their resilience and battling qualities when they needed them most. England tore through the Netherlands after the break and, by the end, were thoroughly deserving of victory, even if there remains more to do.
Never in doubt, some may say, but it was. They will travel north to Hampden Park knowing they need a big win against Scotland on Tuesday, or for the Netherlands to drop points against Belgium, but how the Lionesses would have snapped your hand off for that at half time. Perhaps the introduction of Beth Mead from the bench, the Euros golden-boot winner back after a year out, inspired England, but Lauren James also rose to the challenge and took responsibility to drag her side over the line.
The forward created two goals with excellent, drifted crosses to the back post: the first for Georgia Stanway to spark England’s comeback, and then at the end for Toone’s dramatic winner. Toone’s composed finish gave the Manchester United midfielder another crucial moment for her country, after goals in the Euros and Finalissima finals at Wembley, while Lauren Hemp marked her 50th cap with a brilliant equaliser.
England were transformed after half time. They moved the ball quicker, looked after it better, were less open at the back, and found the runs from midfield to stretch the Netherlands in the other direction, Toone and Russo reprising their roles as England’s super-subs. Wiegman gradually rectified a line-up that started without a recognised striker, and the Lionesses looked far better when Russo and then Rachel Daly were restored to the attack.
England’s players looked like they were out at full-time. Perhaps they were exhausted. But to top their Nations League group they still need the Netherlands to drop points against Belgium while beating Scotland at Hampden. It’s a confusing scenario; but England marked their final home game of 2023 with one of their performances of the year. At half time, that felt unthinkable.
The opening goal was preventable. England will say it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. Alex Greenwood was dragged from her position and after Lineth Beerensteyn was played through. Jess Carter and Lucy Bronze collided in the box and allowed the Dutch forward to fire past Mary Earps. England pointed to the fact that Hemp’s earlier shot, which looked to have been sneaking inside the far post, was tipped wide by Netherlands goalkeeper Daphne van Domselaar. Instead of defending the Dutch break, England should have had a corner.
But those can be the breaks and in a must-win game where the first goal looked to be particularly crucial, given how open both teams had set up, the Lionesses were behind.
Yet their task would become greater still and the second Netherlands goal was even worse than the first: Carter and Greenwood were again too hesitant, the former failing to clear, the latter allowing Beerensteyn to cut inside far too easily. It led to the shot from just inside the box. It should have been saved by Earps but it squirmed through her hands. It was another high-profile error from the goalkeeper after her mistake in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford last month. That their player of the year made such an obvious mistake summed up England’s malaise.
There are reasons to explain it: this team reached two major tournament finals in two summers and this was another night where, at times, an excessive schedule caught up with them. For 45 minutes, a team who have so often risen to the occasion fell flat in front of a big Wembley crowd.
But, somehow, they still have a chance. That the Lionesses are up against it is down to those damaging defeats against Belgium last month and the Dutch in September. It has been a long time since you could accuse the Lionesses of failure, but being out of the running to top this Nations League group with a game to spare would have counted as one.
This is out of England’s hands now, but if they could choose to go out on their terms this is how they would do it. They were unrecognisable in the first half – but Wembley, the real Lionesses are back.