England’s U19s are heading to the 2019 European Championships after a strong 2-0 win over Italy on Wednesday afternoon.
Both sides had won their opening two Elite Round games, putting them tied on points at the top of Group 6. The Young Lionesses, however, possessed a plus 11 goal difference to Italy’s two. This meant that a draw would be enough to send them through to the Finals.
Rehanne Skinner made one change to the starting line-up that had dispatched with Sweden so sufficiently on Saturday. Millwall’s Lucy Fitzgerald came into the front three alongside Lauren Hemp and Jessica Naz while Emily Syme dropped to the bench.
It was the Italians who started on the front foot, pressurising the England defence in the very early stages of the game. Angela Caloia was sending in some decent crosses that both Esme Morgan and Poppy Pattinson had to be alert to deal with.
Despite this, however, the hosts took the lead with their first attack. Just as in the previous game, it was Naz who scored the opener in the 3rd minute. The Tottenham forward broke down the left and waltzed past the defence. Entering the area, she looked up and drove a powerful shot past the onrushing Roberta Aprile.
Three minutes later, England had doubled their lead. Ella Rutherford had possession in the middle and was upended as she looked for the pass. With the referee playing advantage, Hemp picked up the loose ball, played a one-two with Naz and fired home from inside the box.
The pace of the English attack was proving too hot for the Italian defence to handle and they resorted to cynical challenges to stop them advancing. There were two yellow cards within a couple of minutes when Italian captain, Angelica Soffia, and then Chiara Ripamonti pulled back on Fitzgerald and Naz respectively. Ripamonti was immediately substituted by her manager, knowing that his central defender would be at serious risk for the rest of the game.
As the half drew to a close, Italy grew in strength and put together a period of pressure of their own. Giada Greggi was producing some fine deliveries into the box that had to be well defended. Hannah Hampton was also called into action, first to deny Sara Baldi before saving Caloia’s shot from distance.
However, just as they were building momentum, the visitors were dealt a blow. An England counter attack came to Naz about 25 yards from goal when she was tripped up by Soffia. Having already booked her earlier in the half, the referee had no choice but to show her another. With that, the whistle blew and England left the pitch in a strong position.
The half-time break seemed to do Italy the world of good. Despite being a player down, they started on the front foot and almost pulled a goal back within minutes of the restart. Caloia was proving their most dangerous player and she found a shot in the box that forced Hampton into a really fine save. Shortly after this opportunity, Miriam Longo also had a sight at goal but her shot rolled wide of the post.
However, as in the first half, Italy were failing to keep their heads in defence and a moment of petulance saw them reduced to nine with half an hour to play. An incisive counter saw Naz break through the line. Seeing the danger, Vanessa Panzeri, stuck out an arm to stop the forward in her tracks and bring her down. With the referee brandishing a yellow, the Italian defender said enough to the official to force her to produce a second and give her her marching orders.
England sought to make the extra numbers count and brought on Ebony Salmon for Naz up front. She was almost played through with her first action of the game but Aprile rushed quickly out of her goal to win it. The Sheffield United striker had another chance a few minutes later, when she broke through the Italian defence onto Hemp’s ball but her shot was brilliantly blocked by the Italian goalkeeper. She recovered possession and fired an angled effort towards goal that was just scrambled off the line by the recovering defender.
That was the best chance of the half for the Young Lionesses as the game drew to a close. Celebrations ensued on the final whistle as they booked their spot in the 2019 European Championships. They will be played in Scotland this summer from the 16th-28th July with the draw being made in Glasgow next Tuesday, the 16th April at midday.
We caught up with goalscorer, Jessica Naz, and manager, Rehanne Skinner, after the game:
You must be very pleased with that performance. How important was it for you to get that goal early on?
JN: I think it was good to get those early goals. From there, we were comfortable. I was happy to get that goal in the first five minutes. It’s good in terms of mentality; we wanted to test their defenders early and I think we did that well.
How do you sum up that game today and also the tournament as a whole?
RS: Today’s game – firstly, I think we were quick out of the starting blocks, so it obviously made it quite difficult for Italy to settle down. We made a change in formation that they may or may not have been expecting. But the two early goals again really set the tone for us and, under some adversity at some points with little things that were going on in the match, I think we managed ourselves well during that period and that resulted in us having a bit of a number advantage late on as well. It wasn’t necessarily as pretty as we would have liked in the second half but sometimes you have just got to get through those parts of the game.
For the tournament as a whole, we’ve kept a clean sheet in three games, that’s the first thing, and scored quite a few goals. The big thing for us was that we didn’t just want to perform well here, we wanted to send a message for what that’s going to look like for us going into the Finals. The team has come together very well over the course of the week. Tournament wise, there has been a lot going on off the pitch which has been as important as the stuff that we’ve managed to pull together on the pitch. It’s been really positive.
In terms of between now and July, how do you prepare the team ahead of the big tournament?
RS: Well this age group has quite a key exam period coming up, so education becomes quite a priority in the next couple of months. Our next camp is in June, which is obviously towards the end of the season, so then we look to work really closely with their clubs on what that looks like managing them back in to get them ready for the Finals in the summer. We get really good support from the clubs in that sense and that’s a joined-up process for the benefit of the players.
You must be feeling pretty confident after this tournament that you can go to Scotland and really do something?
RS I hope so. It’s certainly been a lot of improvement and we’ve definitely seen a lot of progress over the course of the season. From the players’ perspective, in the changing room before we started this game today, they had really clear intent about what they wanted out of this match and I think they will be exactly the same going into the summer. So yeah it’s really positive.