It was fitting that Fran Kirby’s rising strike into the top corner would break the resolve of a resilient Northern Ireland defence. The Chelsea forward has been in magical form for England during the group stage of the Euros, the creative hub of the midfield, and her goal followed a typically selfless move to set up Georgia Stanway when she perhaps should have shot herself.
Kirby’s goal opened the gate which the Lionesses would pour through, earning a 5-0 defeat of Northern Ireland in their final game in Group A to maintain a perfect start to their Euros campaign.
England’s smooth run through the group stage hit a small speed bump with the announcement earlier in the day that their manager, Sarina Wiegman, had tested positive for Covid and would remain at the team’s west London base.
The 52-year-old’s assistant, Arjan Veurink, who joined from the Netherlands with her, instead led the team at St Mary’s. He said before kick-off that the impact would be minimal, that Wiegman was “doing OK” and that she would be in contact with him and the rest of the staff during the game. “She is not here, but she will be,” he said.
If there was ever a right time for England to lose their manager, this was perhaps it. There was nothing riding on the result bar momentum and, given the five-day gap between the final group game and the team’s quarter-final in Brighton, the impact will probably be minimal.
With England having topped the group and Northern Ireland already having confirmed their exit from their first major international tournament, there was a celebratory vibe in Southampton – one that the bouncing contingent of fans in green were keen to see punctured come kick-off.
Many expected a high-scoring game. England have played Northern Ireland three times in the past 18 months, with the Euros hosts winning 6-0, 4-0 and 5-0.
It was always unlikely, though, to be as great a margin as the 8-0 win England chalked up against Norway on Monday night. Northern Ireland, who are the lowest-ranked side in the competition at 47, know that attack is not their best form of defence and they banked bodies in front of the ball.
It worked, and there was even the chance for the Euros minnows to score in the first minute, when Lauren Wade forced Mary Earps into a save.
From the second minute onwards it was one-way traffic, with England enjoying the vast majority of the possession and completing just 239 passes to Northern Ireland’s 40 in the first half.
It was inevitable, then, that the goals would come. After knocking on the door, including being denied a penalty after a VAR review ruled Beth Mead had handled before Laura Rafferty’s handball, England finally broke through in the 41st minute. Moments after Kirby had selflessly teed up Georgia Stanway only for Northern Ireland players to block the shot, Kirby collected a loose ball just outside the box and launched it into the top corner.
The Northern Ireland manager, Kenny Shiels, was forced to apologise for blaming women for being “more emotional than men” after his team had conceded twice in quick succession in their 5-0 loss to England in April. He faced a similar scenario here, with Mead doubling England’s lead within three minutes when she collected a clearance before cutting around Rebecca McKenna, swapping on to her left foot and firing low past the goalkeeper Jacqueline Burns.
The half-time whistle was little respite. Wiegman had said that momentum mattered most to her in the pre-match press conference and insisted she would not rest legs. England’s starting XI remained the same as a result. By the break though the narrative had changed, with Russo on for Ellen White, Ella Toone replacing Stanway and Alex Greenwood entering in place of Millie Bright.
Three minutes after the restart Russo added a third for England, sending Mead’s cross in with a thumping header. She had a second not long after. Showing she is as good with her feet as she is with her head, the forward collected Toone’s through ball and turned with one touch before shooting past Burns for her seventh goal in 10 caps.
The fifth was cruel, with the substitute defender Kelsie Burrows clipping a looping ball over Burns with her outstretched foot, but there was no let off for Northern Ireland with England applying pressure with the same intensity as they had in the first half.
England have a four-day break before they are back in action against the runners-up of Group B, likely to be either Spain or Denmark, and they go into it with 14 goals scored, three clean sheets and the support of a nation that is rapidly waking up to their blistering form on home soil. Sheils said it best himself, prior to the game: “I can say it now we’re out but they [England] could go on and win the tournament, I think most people feel that way.”
July 16, 2022 at 02:52AM Suzanne Wrack at St Mary’s