The Lionesses did not dare celebrate. Then, finally, there was nothing to celebrate. England had scored six goals against Scotland but it is the Netherlands who go through to the Nations League finals after an absurd and dramatic end to a surreal night at Hampden.
The Lionesses thought they had secured the result they needed, winning 6-0 in Glasgow to top the Nations League standings and keep Team GB’s hopes of qualifying for next summer’s Olympics alive. That was the case until Damaris Egurrola struck twice in stoppage time to turn Group A1 on its head. From going out, to going through, to going out again within a matter of moments, Egurrola’s double gave the Netherlands a 4-0 win over Belgium and saw the Dutch progress to the semi-finals on goal difference at the expense of England and Team GB.
Between Egurrola’s brace, Lucy Bronze’s 92nd minute header looked to have rescued the Lionesses again. It was that kind of night, with the standings so finely balanced a single goal in Glasgow or over in the Netherlands was able to change everything. For all that Scotland promised that they would not roll over, the Lionesses flattened the hosts on their big Hampden night. Scotland had suffered the thrashing they promised they would try hard to avoid but the twist was the Netherlands managed to avoid the outcome they feared.
England knew what was required and each goal was met with the same response: a turn, a jog back to the half-way line, a steely and determined look to signal more was needed. On Friday, the Lionesses were minutes away from being out of it before they completed their stunning comeback against the Netherlands. Even then, Ella Toone’s winner at Wembley was not celebrated by England as they knew they had failed to take the head-to-head record against the Netherlands and were therefore behind the Dutch on goal difference. In the end, that proved decisive.
So the result, finally, is that there will be no Team GB for the Lionesses or Sarina Wiegman in Paris next year. A squad who have played major international tournaments in each of the last three summers will have a rare break, and perhaps that is not a bad thing. But the Lionesses, as the nominated nation on behalf of Team GB, wanted this desperately. That determination was on display as England racked up the goals. But, until Bronze’s late header, there was none from the 50th minute. With both results going their way, it was as if Wiegman’s side were frozen by not knowing whether to push for more or sit on what they had.
It could have been worse for Scotland, the embarrassing scoreline could have been even heavier, yet the hosts were also close to denying England before the Netherlands’ intervention. A combination of Mary Earps and Bronze forced Martha Thomas’s header onto the post in stoppage time and, in the end, it would be unfair and wrong to accuse Scotland of a lack of professionalism or a lack of fight as they welcomed the Auld Enemy in front of 15,000.
Scotland captain Rachel Corsie said it was “disrespectful” and “outrageous” to suggest the hosts would allow the Lionesses a comfortable night, even though Scotland’s best chance of reaching the Olympics as part of Team GB was with a heavy defeat. But by half-time at Hampden, the contest had the one-sided scoreline that the Lionesses needed and the Netherlands had feared.
England knew there was a chance that they would need a big win – despite that, Wiegman’s line-up was not overly attacking although the Lionesses did not need to throw numbers forward recklessly to get through Scotland, either. The European champions were not particularly sharp or ruthless to begin with but led after 12 minutes when Alex Greenwood was left unmarked on the six-yard line in Beth Mead’s outswinging corner. It was a gift from Scotland, whose poor defending was exposed, and there would be further punishment as England found their clinical edge.
It all changed when Lauren James took charge in a devastating eight-minute spell before half-time. The Chelsea winger scored twice and set up Mead to give England the four-goal lead they required to overtake the Netherlands, who were ahead against Belgium, in the Group A standings. James’s first took a wicked deflection off Nicola Doherty but the second, two minutes later, was sublime, with a shimmy to create the space before bending a sublime shot past goalkeeper Lee Gibson. Then James turned creator to float a pass to Mead, who controlled and finished to score her first England goal in 15 months.
A second deflection was cruel on Scotland, who conceded four goals from England’s first four shots on target. But with it, the Lionesses had what was required: the danger came from England’s progress turning into a goal race between themselves and the Netherlands. When Fran Kirby met Georgia Stanway’s cross to put England five goals up, it gave the Lionesses breathing space. Lineth Beerensteyn then pulled it back, as she scored her second to put the Netherlands two goals up.
And yet England continued to frantically press – Kirby hit the bar, Mead’s shot was blocked on the goal line, Greenwood’s free-kick was palmed away. After the hour, the Lionesses turned to Alessia Russo and Toone, but the threat was still there at the other end as well. England had to scramble clear after Thomas forced Earps into a stop. Then Earps spilled Esme Morgan’s under-hit back-pass, but Kirsty Hanson could not convert from the tight angle. It was a let off and England were living dangerously.
The sting, though, came from the Netherlands, as England waited in the middle of the Hampden pitch for news and a result from the other fixture. When it came, England were stunned and Wiegman was lost for words. This will be hard to process.