England can’t rely on Lauren James alone to survive Euro qualifiers ‘group of death’

The road to England’s Euros defence began where their wait to win a major international tournament had ended, and with an immediate display of why the path to Switzerland is going to be far from straightforward. In the opening game of the European qualifiers at Wembley, the Lionesses were held to a 1-1 draw by Sweden in a result that leaves the European champions on the back foot from the start in their bid to secure one of two automatic spots from this extraordinarily early ‘group of death’.

Sweden gained at least some revenge for their 4-0 hammering in the semi-finals of the Euros two years ago, showing far more resilience and defensive organisation than they managed in the golden summer where England claimed home glory at Wembley. A point was the least that the visitors deserved after Fridolina Rolfo’s back-post header cancelled out Alessia Russo’s first-half opener. They could have won it, too: when Stina Blackstenius was put through on goal but failed to test Mary Earps.

Sarina Wiegman’s side, however, drifted from the game after taking the lead. Sweden are experienced campaigners, regulars in the latter stages of major tournaments, but the Lionesses knew they needed to make an assured and confident start to qualifying after the changes to the format. Though after the early struggles in the Nations League, England know the margins of error are even slimmer now: this was a far better point for Sweden in the group that also contains France and the Republic of Ireland and where only two automatic qualification spots are up for grabs.

England rallied late on, with Lauren Hemp having an effort saved by Sweden goalkeeper Jennifer Falk and another cleared off the line by captain Magdelena Eriksson. By then, England missed the spark that Lauren James had initially injected, taken off midway through the second half. Too many of England’s players lacked the drive James showed when she set up Russo’s opener and played long spells while looking as if they had forgotten how to create chances without the mercurial forward first beating her nearest opponent in the dribble and opening up the space.

Despite the attacking options Wiegman summoned from her bench, the Lionesses were unable to create enough pressure to trouble Sweden. Following on from the Nations League, England could ill-afford dropped points to start, but it could have been worse if Blackstenius punished what was the latest lapse in concentration. Tuesday’s trip to Dublin is suddenly must-win, or close to it.

The Lionesses will have to improve. England were sloppy on the ball throughout, Wembley a little sleepy. Too many chose the safe option, England doubling back on themselves. Keira Walsh, who captained England, needlessly presented Sweden with an early chance as gave away possession with a square ball in midfield. It offered her Barcelona team-mate Rolfo her first opportunity to surge through, but with the angle closing she shot narrowly wide on her usually reliable left foot.

England needed something; a quick switch and a sudden burst produced it. And from who else but James. While Hemp found two dead-ends in her early attempts to dribble at the Sweden left-back Jonna Andersson, James simply eased past moments after the pair swapped sides. Receiving a pass on the wing, James sauntered to the ball, rolled it under her studs, and then flicked away to her right as she dropped her shoulder. From there, James floated a pleasing arc of a cross onto the six-yard line and Russo stooped to nod in.

Russo’s goal gave England momentum but Sweden battled back (The FA via Getty Images)

England took control of the ball throughout the half but were not always comfortable. The direct Rolfo continued to carry a threat on the left while, on the opposite side, Johanna Rytting Kaneryd had the pace to beat her Chelsea team-mate Niamh Charles. Even as the Lionesses led before half-time, the European champions looked open to the transitions and susceptible to the cut-back from the byline. Earps, though, was largely untroubled.

England drifted after half-time, the spark James had given them had faded. Though if England allowed their momentum to stall, Sweden had not exactly seized it from their grasp when Rolfo plundered an equaliser at the back post, beating Lucy Bronze to the header. England switched off from a throw-in and were punished. Blackstenius received the ball in the box with her back to goal, holding off Alex Greenwood. Rosa Kafaji, only just on as a substitute, dug out a driven cross to the back post, where Rolfo snuck up on her Barcelona team-mate Bronze to head past Earps.

The Lionesses were stunned, and Sweden almost struck again. A first-time ball from midfield released Blackstenius but with only Earps to beat the Arsenal striker shot wide.

Blackstenius missed a great chance to give Sweden the lead (The FA via Getty Images)

Even before Rolfo’s equaliser, Wiegman was preparing to ring through the changes. If England had firepower on the bench, this was the time to show it. Grace Clinton, who showed good touches and did not look out of place on just her second England start, had already been replaced by Ella Toone when Beth Mead was summoned to replace James. Sweden manager Peter Gerhardsson joked he was “happy” to see her go off. But England had other proven threats: Mead, another scorer in the semi-final win against Sweden, was then joined by Chloe Kelly, another Euros hero.

The winner did not arrive. Toone came closest to making another Wembley impact with her clever ball through to Hemp, who saw her shot smothered by Falk and then her follow-up cleared off the line by Eriksson. From the corner. Mead shot down into the ground by Falk parried away a strike that was sneaking inside the near post. Sweden survived and England, for all their options, will need more in a group where there is even less room for error now.

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