Interim boss Hege Riise tasted defeat for the first time in charge of England as the Lionesses fell 3-1 to world heavyweights France on Friday night, in Caen.
The friendly clash marked the team’s first away trip in over a year and the penultimate opportunity for each member of the squad to strengthen their claims for a spot in the Team GB Olympic squad, which Riise will name next month.
Having crushed neighbours Northern Ireland 6-0 in February, a match-up against world No.3 France promised a much sterner test, despite Corinne Diacre having lost more than half of her squad to a Covid-19 outbreak.
While Les Bleues were missing all of their Lyon stars they took a 1-0 lead into half-time courtesy of Sandy Baltimore’s fine effort, and Viviane Asseyi doubled their advantage soon after the hour mark from the penalty spot.
Livewire Fran Kirby raised hopes of an England comeback with a penalty of her own 11 minutes from time, but Marie-Antoinette Katoto’s close-range strike restored the two-goal gap, giving Riise plenty to think about ahead of Tuesday’s clash against Canada.
As the countdown continues towards that mouth-watering match-up at Stoke’s Bet365 stadium, we consider what Friday’s display told us about where the Lionesses stand ahead of Tokyo 2020 and next summer’s delayed European Championship.
Defensive vulnerability costly once more
It’s the age-old problem that marred much of Phil Neville’s reign and, although Riise oversaw a clean sheet in her first match in charge, this performance emphasised frailties at the back which could cost England - and indeed Team GB - in the long run.
A defence missing the injured Steph Houghton, FIFA Best Player of 2020 Lucy Bronze, and Manchester stalwart Demi Stokes was always likely to face challenges, but Kadidiatou Diani’s sharp run down the right for the first goal caught each member of the back-line napping.
Baltimore, 21 and winning just her fourth cap for France, was a tricky customer all night and duly wrong-footed Rachel Daly after collecting the ball, took a touch and arrowed a piercing shot past goalkeeper Ellie Roebuck.
Roebuck made a handful of key saves throughout the 90 minutes and can’t be blamed for any of the three goals conceded, but she looked unusually nervous at times and was guilty of misjudging a couple of crosses.
Daly - who offers Riise valuable versatility - was responsible for conceding the penalty that led to France’s second goal after a tangle with Elisa de Almeida following Diani’s impressive long-range effort.
England are hopeful of welcoming Bronze and Stokes back into the fold for the Canada match, and if that happens it will be worth noting the side’s defensive assuredness against another top-class team.
Plenty of threat in attack
For all of their issues protecting their own goal, England demonstrated their potency in attack by creating myriad chances against France, albeit only scoring once from the penalty spot.
While their finishing was poor, Riise’s charges managed 16 attempts on goal by the 39-minute mark and the hosts had stopper Pauline Peyraud-Magnin to thank for keeping them in the game at times.
Beth Mead and the returning Nikita Parris both had chances well saved, with the latter putting in an impressive performance that she will be keen to build on by getting on the scoresheet in Stoke.
Ellen White - who captained the Lionesses in Houghton’s absence - had a somewhat quiet night in front of goal but could have still added to her tally of 34 international strikes, only for an offside decision to go against Mead.
Promising performances from goalscorer Kirby and substitute Lauren Hemp add to the argument that there is much to admire about England’s high offensive line which - with a bit of fine-tuning in defence and some more game time - could yet steer them to success in the near future.
Hemp boosts Olympic chances
While Riise has the unenviable task of naming her 18-player Olympic squad in only a matter of weeks, Hemp boosted her chances of earning a seat on the plane with an impressive 26-minute cameo in France.
Still only 20, the Manchester City forward has raised her stock with a number of fine performances at club level in 2020/21, and her energy and trickery here were England’s likeliest source of getting anything from the game.
Indeed she won the penalty that Kirby converted, marking the first goal conceded by France in 800 minutes of play.
Although Hemp faces a nervous wait to find out if she will make the Olympic cut, one name surely in the squad is Kirby, who has stood out for Chelsea in the Barclays FA WSL all season and was arguably England’s best player on the night.