England’s SheBelieves Cup campaign crawled to a close after a thumping header from Alexia Putellas gave a rising Spain team a 1-0 win.
Phil Neville had needed a win to ensure, in his own words, a successful campaign, but instead the Lionesses limp away with one tight win against a young Japan side, who are partaking in this tournament during their off season.
The performance against Spain was a small improvement on the preceding two games, against USA and Japan, but once again Neville’s side lacked any kind of cutting edge up top. The manager is likely safe in his job, with the FA indicating they would be fully backing the 41-year-old regardless of results in the US, but it will not be enough to silence the fan disquiet at seven defeats in 11 games, includes a match in which England had zero shots on target. Neville has said he will know “myself if it is not working” with England appearing to have gone backwards since the World Cup last summer, his tenure must me in question.
Neville made eight changes to the team that scraped past Japan. Some of those were enforced by a growing injury list: captain Steph Houghton was rested but Chelsea and Birmingham will be sweating on the reported ankle strains to Beth England and first-choice goalkeeper Hannah Hampton. Both were seen wearing protective boots before kick off, having fallen foul of a bumpy training pitch on Tuesday. Manchester City winger Lauren Hemp, the breakout star in the US, sat out the Spain encounter through an illness not related to the coronavirus.
The ground of MLS side FC Dallas was sparsely filled with the attendance likely affected by fears in Collin County following their first reported cases of coronavirus – a man in his 30s, his wife and their three-year-old, who is one of the youngest patients in the US to have tested positive.
In the searing Texan heat and despite the changes, England looked their slickest of the tournament. There were still errors and Spain dominated possession, but the Lionesses did well to nullify an attack that had so troubled the world champions, the USA, on Sunday. USA will play Japan in the early hours of Thursday, with a winner for the hosts ensuring the SheBelieves trophy.
With Houghton absent from the starting line up, Millie Bright, looking to translate her fine Chelsea form into the national team, worked well alongside Manchester United’s Abbie McManus. They were shielded by Arsenal’s Leah Williamson who revelled in a more naturalmidfield position.
The Lionesses’ brightest play came through Nikita Parris’s link up play with Williamson and Jordan Nobbs. Within 10 minutes the tricky Lyon winger sped down the right before cutting past left back Leila Ouahabi and chipping a cross into an empty box.
Moments later Rachel Daly and Jill Scott bounced the ball into the run of Ellen White but the prolific forward could only lift the ball over the bar.
Spain dominated possession, but they had little to show for it. Instead England had the better chances in the final third. A mazy run from Nobbs, having picked up a Williamson cross, powered a cross towards the feet of White but the striker missed, instead tangling with a defender.
Having said he would “manage the minutes” of Houghton and Bright, Neville hooked the latter for the former at half time and it disrupted England’s solidity somewhat.
Spain smelt blood, and on the hour mark they almost took the lead. Ainhoa Moraza, having won the ball on the halfway line, cut past McManus and Houghton but onrushing goalkeeper Carly Telford, bidding to make the No 1 shirt her own, blocked the shot with her face.
Spain threatened again, substitute Marta Cardona bursting in from the left this time to twist past Daly but a sliding tackle from McManus cut out her charge.
There was a late flurry of changes which included England and North Carolina player Alessia Russo picking up her first minutes of the tournament but it was perhaps wrong for Neville to throw on the youngsters in a game he needed to win. While they did that, Spain turned to an experienced duo on the bench, and they combined for the goal. A Jenni Hermoso corner was turned in powerfully by Alexia Putellas – 10 of the last 18 goals that England have conceded have been from set pieces.