The Lionesses secured their place at next summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand with a 2-0 defeat of Austria in their first game since their European Championship final heroics in July.
Goals in either half from Alessia Russo and Nikita Parris, who scored her first England goal since September last year, helped England navigate past a tricky Austria seeking to upset the narrative and England top qualifying Group D having scored 70 goals and conceded none.
Sarina Wiegman had said, the day before the game, she had made up her mind about who would lead the line for England in place of Ellen White. She did not want to share who had been selected to occupy the starting berth of the Lionesses retired record goalscorer, but there was little doubt it would be Russo.
The 23-year-old shone off the bench in place of White in all of England’s six games at the Euros, scoring four times, with her audacious backheel against Sweden named goal of the tournament by Uefa.
It took seven minutes to make her mark in the tiny Wiener Neustadt stadium, which has three stands and is overlooked by a waterslide that children would back up in so they could have a look at what was happening on the pitch.
There was some good fortune to the goal, with England’s luck – when they avoided Covid and serious injuries to key personnel while main rivals suffered in the summer – continuing as Lauren Hemp’s header from Alex Greenwood’s cross ricocheted off the back of Georgia Stanway and looped favourably into the path of Russo who slammed her low volley back across goal and in.
It was Russo’s ninth goal in 13 games for the senior side and England’s third first-half goal scored against Austria in the past 10 months – White having scored the Lionesses’ only goal shortly before half-time in the reverse fixture last November and Beth Mead slotting in the 16th minute of the 1-0 win to open the Euros at Old Trafford.
This was not quite the swaggering England of the Euros, but this international break never falls kindly. The Lionesses are in pre-season with their clubs ahead of the WSL kicking off next weekend, with only Manchester City’s players having played competitively, in Champions League qualifiers.
There was sloppiness to England’s passing as a result and Austria, having reached the semi-finals of the Euros for the second time where they were knocked out by Germany, troubled England out wide. Full-backs Laura Wienroither, who joined Arsenal in January, and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Verena Hanshaw pushed up-field, putting pressure on Lucy Bronze and Greenwood.
Austria’s slim hopes of qualifying ahead of England were reliant on a win here, England losing to Luxembourg on Tuesday and Austria avoiding defeat to North Macedonia.
Although needing the unlikeliest of successive outcomes, Austria played in a way that had you believing the almost impossible was the opposite, with Bronze a particular target of Barbara Dunst as Austria stepped up efforts to upset the narrative of the European champions qualifying for the World Cup with a game to play.
A minute into the second half and disaster nearly struck for England, with their goalkeeper, Mary Earps, failing to get rid of Leah Williamson’s pass as Julia Hickelsberger-Füller bore down. Earps’s eventual attempt to clear deflected off the forward but trickled wide of the post.
Earps would amend for her error with a double save around the hour mark, pushing aside Laura Feiersinger’s curling shot before hugging the ball to her chest from a close-range effort after the resulting corner.
If there had been any concern that England would lack the same spark off the bench, with Euros supersubs Ella Toone and Russo in the starting XI, then they were assuaged within eight minutes of Russo making way for Beth England and Mead leaving the field for Nikita Parris. England played the ball back to Stanway and the Bayern Munich midfielder’s diagonal pass was collected by Parris who lashed the ball into the roof of the net past Manuela Zinsberger. Victory means the pressure is off going into England’s final Group D qualifier against Luxembourg on Tuesday night, and ensures the Lionesses’ friendly against the world champions, the US, on 7th October, which sold out in less than 24 hours, will go ahead as planned.