England Women saved their blushes with a late penalty from Lyon forward Nikita Parris to draw 3-3 with Belgium in the Lionesses’ first game since finishing fourth at the World Cup last month.
Despite missing out on their ultimate goal of World Cup glory in France after losing to eventual champions the United States in the semi-finals, England cemented their status as one of the best sides on the planet by reaching the last four for a third consecutive major tournament.
Yet there was something of a reality check awaiting the Lionesses squad in the Belgian city of Leuven on Thursday evening, with sloppy defending firmly punished.
Belgium didn’t qualify for the World Cup and are 19th in the FIFA rankings, compared to England’s fifth place. That gulf in class certainly showed early on as Jodie Taylor and Beth Mead gave the visitors a 2-0 lead inside the opening 26 minutes.
It could even have been three when Steph Houghton struck the post, but poor defending soon came back to bite England and it was 2-2 by the time the half-time whistle sounded. A Carly Telford own goal and an Ella van Kerkhoven header had put Belgium back on level terms.
A Houghton mistake then gave Van Kerkhoven the chance to put Belgium into the lead not long after the restart and the Inter forward gratefully took it.
Oh no, no, no. Goal: Belgium 3-2 England. The hosts, from 2-0 down, get a third following a mistake from Steph Houghton. Shambles!— Emma Sanders (@em_sandy) August 29, 2019
Despite all of the attacking quality in the squad, suspect defending had threatened to expose England at the World Cup, with the Lionesses arguably lucky to escape against Scotland, Japan and Cameroon without being made to pay for their sloppiness.
As it was, those fears at last came home to roost in this friendly encounter.
England only managed to save the game in the final 15 minutes when Belgian midfielder Janice Cayman inexplicably leaned into the ball with her arm in the penalty area. Parris, who twice missed from the spot at the World Cup, rifled the ball into the top corner.
England could and perhaps should have been reduced to 10 players before the end when Manchester United centre-back Abbie McManus was fortunate to a red card in stoppage time for a dangerous and reckless tackle on Kassandra Missipo.
This was not quite a full strength England team, with Jill Scott, Fran Kirby, Alex Greenwood, World Cup Bronze Boot winner Ellen White and the retired Karen Carney missing. But only Chelsea's Bethany England made a debut and the entire starting XI were at the World Cup.
All-time record cap holder Fara Williams also returned to the fold from the bench.
Next up for Phil Neville’s England team is a friendly against Norway in Bergen on Tuesday. After that there will be a huge post-World Cup homecoming game against Germany at Wembley in November, with a record crowd in excess of 50,000 people expected at the national stadium.