England endured a frustrating night in Brighton as they were held to a goalless draw by the Czech Republic. The Lionesses struggled to find their rhythm as a strong defensive performance from the visitors kept their customary prolific attack at bay.
Sarina Wiegman, the England manager, saw the occasion as a “good learning moment” for her team. “We are absolutely disappointed because we think we could have won,” she said. “We knew the Czech Republic was a very tough opponent; they are very physical and direct. We just had to do a little better.”
It was a celebration of the old and the new as Wiegman’s side returned to Brighton for the first time since the summer. As one of England’s legends Anita Asante was celebrated on the touchline, having recently ended her glittering playing career, a full debut was handed to their impressive youngster Lauren James.
There is much anticipation around the 21-year-old Chelsea star who was one of three changes Wiegman made to her starting eleven. In addition, the inclusion of Ella Toone alongside Fran Kirby spoke to the different challenge the Czechs would present. Karel Rada’s team are ranked 28th in the world, an up-and-coming side who tend to sit deeper and hit the opposition on the counterattack.
Despite the gap, the visitors made life difficult for a disjointed looking England. Whether it was complacency or just a lack of focus, the hosts struggled to reach the high levels that have seen them dominate recently.
James came close early on, stinging the gloves of Olivie Lukasova with a close-range effort. But England’s chances were minimal with the Czech midfield disrupting their attempts to break at speed. Kirby was the brightest on the field, occasionally finding those pockets of space that she operates so well in, but England failed to create anything of note in front of goal.
The Czech Republic, however, picked their moments and looked threatening on the break. On one such occasion their tall No 9, Andrea Staskova, found a gap through England’s back-line but lost momentum as she found herself stranded.
As the break loomed, England upped the pressure. Their best passage of play saw their new centurion, Lucy Bronze, set up Chloe Kelly but she could only head wide of the far post. England returned to the dressing room with work to be done.
Wiegman had clearly seen enough with Beth Mead, the Lionesses’ player of the moment, entering the pitch at half-time. She immediately injected pace and stability into England’s play, with her dangerous deliveries crying out for a head to convert.
Finding more fluidity in possession, England were starting to utilise the speed of their attack to cause problems. Hemp came agonisingly close, hitting the post from a tight angle with Kirby somehow unable to bundle the rebound over the line. Their forward pressure, however, did leave them susceptible on the counter with Tereza Krejcirikova breaking the length of the field to fire wide.
From start to finish, it had been a match that had the air of an encounter on which not a lot was riding.
England’s momentum was disrupted once more with a series of changes for both sides. Gabriela Slajsova was stretchered off with a nasty looking injury while Wiegman handed a debut to Esme Morgan in a flurry of activity on the touchline. The Manchester City defender slotted in for Millie Bright as England moved to three at the back in search of a breakthrough.
The crowd grew frustrated, and on the pitch, England fared little better, coming up against the Czech Republic’s low defensive block. As Wiegman explained post-match, her side needed to experience this type of test. “I think it was all about us and doing better and being tighter on the ball. It’s not very complex,” she said.
“You want to have opponents that are hard to beat. Last Friday [against the USA] was different; it was equal. We knew we would be in possession a lot more.”
There was one moment of magic right at the end when Kirby turned her defender only to see her sweetly-struck effort tipped over the bar. There was no breakthrough, however, as England suffered a rare glitch under Wiegman’s tenure. A learning experience with plenty to build on ten months away from a World Cup.