England Lionesses ‘killed their demons’ and have no ‘fear’ ahead of 2023 World Cup

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Lit up with the colours of the European Champions ahead of England’s friendly against the United States of America on Friday, the Wembley arch, resplendent, was hard to miss - so you would think.

That one young woman in a rain poncho should have stopped a passer-by to ask ‘which way to Wembley?’, phone pressed to her ear in the midst of an urgent family reunion arrangement, is perhaps telling of the new crowd attracted to the home of football by the Lionesses’ summer exploits.

Much has been made of the stark difference in atmospheres at the Euro 2020 and Euro 2022 finals, and it was true again that PA reminders of the no street drinking zone and signs warning against public urination seemed surplus to requirement as fans marched toward the stadium without much fuss.

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Drizzle put paid to the potential for a re-run of the full-blown carnival atmosphere on the sun-drenched Wembley Way as fans gathered back in July to watch England contest their first major trophy.

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The brolly count stood at just three, while bucket hats numbered in the hundreds, with white-and-red stetsons of the kind popularised by Rachel Daly and Georgia Stanway across the summer also coming out in force. Some fans came dressed as St George himself, others donned England tutus, while homages to England ‘96 and Steven Gerrard were mixed in with shirts bearing the name of Euro 2022 heroes.

As policemen fist-bumped fans and programme sellers wore cardboard boxes as makeshift umbrella hats, there was a real buzz about the place as expectant fans hoped the Lionesses could end the night with a statement win.

And the showpiece didn’t take long to meet supporters’ high expectations, getting off to a blistering pace as fans in the stands serenaded the Lionesses, ‘champions of Europe, we know what we are’. Sarina Wiegman’s players looked every bit worthy of the mantle, too as they went toe-to-toe with the side who have so long held a global stranglehold on the sport, the crowd cooing as world-class teams took it in turns to one-up each other with silky passages of play which were very easy on the eye.

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AFP via Getty Images

It was an evening which marked change - not just among the volume and demographic of the crowd, but on the pitch too. England killed some demons with Georgia Stanway’s 33rd-minute penalty. USA ‘keeper Alyssa Naeher, diving the same way as she did to save former England captain Steph Houghton’s penalty to preserve the States’ victory in the 2019 World Cup semi-final, was bamboozled this time by the Bayern Munich star - have the tables finally turned?

The US Women’s National Team have long been admired for their robust winning mentality, but on Friday, it was the Lionesses who stood taller, as their recent tournament win and Wiegman’s ruthless planning told.

When the referee blew for England’s penalty, Alex Greenwood, standing in for injured centre-back and captain Leah Williamson, looked assured as she grabbed the ball to steal time from Naeher’s preparation before Stanway stepped up last-minute.

With the shoe on the other foot in the second half, England number 1 Mary Earps prowled about her area with menace, refusing to budge from the penalty spot as her opponents attempted to put the ball down for the spot-kick.

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Despite major personnel changes, with Williamson and Alessia Russo forced out by injury, the Lionesses looked a well-oiled machine, brimming with confidence.

Russo’s stand-in, Lauren Hemp, proved equally exciting in a central role, with Lucy Bronze’s performance among the more memorable of the night; bucked by her recent move to Barcelona, the Ballon D’Or winner played close to her best, her nutmeg of Megan Rapinoe saying it all - the States veteran’s rustiness another significant indicator of sea change in the battle for supremacy on the international stage.

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After a game which turned on a number of officiating decisions, none of which fell the visitors’ way, Vlatko Andonovski’s side may not feel thoroughly beaten by their upstart trans-atlantic neighbours.

But those England fans goading and shushing the travelling States’ support following VAR reviews showed as much fear of the world champions as the Lionesses on the pitch.

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