With Wales topping 2019 World Cup qualifying Group 1 and England a point behind having played a game fewer, this match offered Phil Neville’s side a strong competitive test for his first home outing, against a team with strong qualification ambitions of their own. The Lionesses’ 4-0, 6-0 and 5-0 demolitions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia and Kazakhstan respectively, and runner-up spot at the SheBelieves Cup, may have filled them with confidence but this draw will have measured that and left them ruing not making more of such a possession-heavy display.
England began on the front foot, dominating possession, and spent much of the first half camped in the Wales half but it was Jayne Ludlow’s side who will have gone in at half-time feeling hard done by.
With Wales defending deep, often dropping to five at the back, England were held to long-range efforts and set pieces, unable to break through such a well-rehearsed back line. The deep defending left Kayleigh Green (converted from a defender to a forward by Ludlow) isolated up front but Wales were not without chances of their own and they should have taken the lead in the eighth minute from a rare Wales corner delivered by Angharad James. The ball rolled teasingly through the box, taking a number of deflections and falling at the feet of Natasha Harding whose shot crossed the line before being booted clear. But the referee waved away Welsh appeals for the goal.
At the other end England pushed and pushed at the Welsh back line but were crowded out in the centre. Toni Duggan, forced to go long, had a shot pushed on to the post by Laura O’Sullivan and the overworked keeper held the Lionesses at bay again as she tipped a Jordan Nobbs 30-yard screamer on to the bar.
With the approach to the stadium filled with families, in particular young girls, and only two corners of St Mary’s kept empty while the rest of the stadium was filled with a crowd ofmore than 25,000 , the atmosphere was electric. Neville’s confidence of a Wembley outing in the next year looked increasingly likely as the Lionesses’ showed they can fill a Premier League ground.
England started the second half much like the first but Duggan, Nikita Parris, Fran Kirby and Jodie Taylor were unable to keep the ball down in the box and string any passes between them. However, the introduction of Ellen White for Taylor and Melissa Lawley for Parris injected pace. Manchester City’s Lawley caused all kinds of trouble for Rhiannon Roberts with pacy runs and swift crosses from the left. Birmingham’s White stuck herself between the centre-backs Hayley Ladd and Loren Dykes, pulling them away from the dangerous Lawley.
Seattle Reign’s Jess Fishlock looked to be Wales’s most threatening outlet on the counter, first racing from her own area but unable to find Green with her desperate through-ball. Later another Nobbs corner slid to the edge of the box and was picked off by Fishlock who broke free, with Harding at her side, only for Keira Walsh to make a brilliant tackle as the last player.
With nine minutes left Neville amused the crowd and angered the fourth official when he stepped on to the pitch to help Green after she had gone down with cramp in front of him.
In the closing stages England continued to seek a winner, Nobbs again testing the superb O’Sullivan, who tipped the ball into the path of Walsh, but she could only steer her shot into the side netting. Kirby’s strike in the 90th minute from the edge of the area brought O’Sullivan to full stretch.
At the full-time whistle the Wales players and staff leapt into the air as if celebrating a win and danced in the centre circle while the England players walked the perimeter to applaud the fans. But having had their backs to the wall for the majority of the 90 minutes Wales deserved to soak up the single point gained from their defensive labour.
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