If there was any doubt about whether England’s form would dip after a prolonged break, it was swiftly put to bed on Thursday night. A 4-0 victory saw Sarina Wiegman’s side sweep past Korea Republic as they mounted their defence of the Arnold Clark Cup. Korea Republic’s manager, Colin Bell, called the Lionesses “the best team in the world at the moment” as goals from Georgia Stanway, Chloe Kelly, Alessia Russo and Lauren James sealed the three points.
“Every game’s about winning and doing it convincingly,” said England captain Leah Williamson. “If you compare it to last year, we weren’t so happy after the first game. It was tough out there as well. The pitch wasn’t great. The opposition were feisty. So, for us to be so controlled, I thought it spoke volumes about us.”
This was the moment that preparations for this summer’s World Cup ramped up a level. There were plenty of regular faces, therefore, in Wiegman’s startling line-up. The absence of the influential Keira Walsh to a stomach bug saw Jess Carter start in the defence while Leah Williamson pushed up into midfield. Meanwhile James, firing on all cylinders for Chelsea this season, started with Lauren Hemp named on the bench.
It was anticipated that Bell’s Korean side would give the Lionesses a different test to some they’ve had previously – a style perhaps more similar to China who they will meet in the summer. Ranked 15th in the world, they contain several familiar faces for fans of the Barclays WSL with Brighton’s Lee Guem-min starting in midfield while her club colleague, Park Ye-eun, and former Chelsea player Ji So-Yun were named amongst the substitutes.
The first few minutes of the game set the stall for what was to come when a fierce James effort flashed wide of the goal. Mary Earps was pretty much a spectator in England’s goal after saving Choo Hyo-Joo’s shot early on. England were dominant on the ball and pulling their opponents from side to side as they tried to suss out the spaces to operate in. Stanway turned a header over the bar before Alessia Russo saw a shot rebound of the post after a well-constructed move.
James was at the heart of it all – England’s version of a “cheat code” as Williamson described her post-match. One of her gliding runs with the ball glued to her feet saw her bypass at least three defenders before having a shot tipped wide by Kim Jung-Mi. There was, therefore, no surprise that she was heavily involved in the opener. Breaking into the box at pace, Jang Sel-gi found the only way to stop her was to trip her (even that does not work half of the time). The referee duly pointed to the spot and Stanway stepped up and hammered the penalty home.
The one criticism of England’s first half was their lack of finishing. That all changed within minutes of the restart as Kelly burst through to the edge of the box before unleashing a right-footed curler. Five minutes later, they had three when Russo deftly turned home a pinpoint Alex Greenwood delivery at the near post.
It understandably sapped the life out of Korea Republic as England continue to create. Kelly flashed a shot narrowly wide and Stanway hit the bar before James capped off a five-star performance with a driven finish – her first senior international goal.
There was time for Wiegman to see some new faces. Laura Coombs returned in an England shirt for the first time since 2015 while Katie Robinson got a cameo, hitting the post deep into injury time.
“We played an opponent who played very deep and compact,” Wiegman analysed post-match. “We expected them a little higher and it was hard for us. The pitch didn’t help either, it was very hard to play on that pitch.”
“I want to try out things. I think this tournament is really a big step in our preparation for the World Cup. We need to see where we are as a team and where individuals are in this moment. We will figure out more things and do some changes.”
There was special praise reserved for James from her teammates. “Everyone knows the quality that LJ’s got,” Lucy Bronze said. “Technically on the ball she’s probably one of the best there is. It’s fun for me to play with her because I know she’s always going to get the ball in the right place. It’s crazy that she’s so young because this is the player that everyone has been talking about for five years now. Everyone has been waiting for this superstar and it’s exciting to be here now at the start of her England career.”
It was a job well done in Milton Keynes as the Lionesses got 2023 off to the perfect start. Italy await next in Coventry. Milena Bertolini’s team conceded late to lose to Belgium in their opener. There is no doubt, especially after this performance, that England will once again go in favourites to come out on top.