A woefully toothless England suffered a ninth defeat in 14 games after two calamitous goals, from Evelyne Viens in the third minute and Nichelle Prince at the close, gave Canada this win against the team ranked two places above them.
England’s interim manager, Hege Riise, was left ruing the errors – with Demi Stokes and the offside flag at fault for the opener and the goalkeeper Karen Bardsley caught out for the second – and not enough cutting edge. “We need to look at how we can create the chances that we need,” she said. “The mistakes are what get us.”
It is hard to place much significance on friendlies, particularly those of a team that went close to a year without having played against international opposition. However, as the losses mount it is also hard to overlook the gaping holes in the performances of a squad packed with players who are shining week in week out in one of the most competitive leagues in the world. Including England’s World Cup semi-final defeat to the USA in June 2019, the Lionesses have won four times in 14 games and, for a team that desire trophies, that just is not good enough.
Riise had spoken of the developmental nature of these games. “Sometimes in order to go further and develop you need some games where you are challenged and you need to see how you deal with it,” she had said beforehand.
England felt the heat instantly and it was a little comical, if unlucky. Manchester City’s Canadian forward Janine Beckie strode towards the England box and looked to slip the ball through to Viens. The Paris FC forward was offside, but the left-back Stokes, not wanting to wait for the flag and be caught out, got there first only to be robbed by Viens, who looped the ball over a diving Carly Telford.
It was a bruising blow for Stokes, who returned to the starting XI to play for just 30 minutes as England and City manage her return from injury.
The goal was a delicious gift for Canada’s manager, Bev Priestman, who took the job in October having been assistant to Phil Neville with England. In a game with few shots on target, it was Canada who would make theirs count, despite being without the world’s all-time international goalscorer, male or female, Christine Sinclair, who picked up a minor ankle injury against Wales last week. “It was great to get the goals without just relying on Christine,” said Priestman.
Given the huge number of injuries to the back line, with Lucy Bronze recovering from a groin injury and their captain, Steph Houghton, not even fit enough to be called up, you could perhaps forgive the struggles of Riise’s team in this international window.
In Stoke, she experimented by playing Georgia Stanway, most naturally a No 10, in a defensive midfield role. Despite many a raised eyebrow it seemed to pay off, with the young City forward’s sharp eye for a pass aiding her in the newer task. With a small 18-player Great Britain squad for the Tokyo Olympics, versatility is king.
It was her fellow Manchester City forward Lauren Hemp, however, who continued to be England’s brightest spark. The young winger’s battling performance highlighted a lethargy that has seemingly invaded the legs and minds of her teammates.
This was, to all appearances, more about England players playing themselves out of contention for Tokyo, and opening the door for the Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish, than them playing themselves into Riise’s plans.
At the death, Canada delivered the sucker punch. Millie Bright played a back-pass to Bardsley, who came on in the second half for her first international appearance since England’s 2019 World Cup quarter-final in France, and the goalkeeper took a touch only to have the ball whipped from her feet and nudged over the line by Prince.