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England’s Earps steps up as goal-scoring struggles continue

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BRISBANE, Australia — BRISBANE, Australia — Minutes after England’s nervy 1-0 win over Haiti at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, striker Georgia Stanway summed up the feelings in the camp perfectly. “It takes a little bit of time to find your feet,” she said.

England were overwhelming favourites. They dominated possession and territory, but were fortunate to come away with all three points. That they did was down to 30-year-old goalkeeper Mary Earps, whose fine save with her left foot from Roseline Eloissaint in the last few minutes ensured England kept their opponents at bay.

Opening World Cup matches are rarely perfect and there’s enough perspective and experience in the group to understand that. Defender Lucy Bronze was there in 2015 when England fell to France in their group opener and went on to finish third. The crux of this team won the Euros last summer and were there for that nervy opening 1-0 win over Austria at Old Trafford. There were echoes of that game in Brisbane — at times England shot when they could’ve passed, the crosses were wayward, and they snatched at chances — but, above all, they got the win.

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Haiti were brilliant and gave England a scare. Their best player — and the best outfielder on the pitch — was Lyon-bound Melchie Dumornay. At just 19 years old, her potential is frightening and despite her pulling the strings from midfield, according to her manager Nicolas Delepine she was upset with the performance afterwards.

Dumornay was at the centre of everything Haiti did well as they belied their FIFA ranking of 53rd in their first-ever World Cup appearance. They didn’t look like this stage was unfamiliar territory. Instead, as they sat deep and hit England on the counter, they had the Lionesses’ defence scrambling at times. Haiti often found space in the middle of England’s penalty area and had the best chances overall: missing a one-on-one early on, and then late too.

It was only Earps’ heroics that kept them out. In a week where she criticized Nike for not making her goalkeeper’s kit available for sale to fans, she put in a performance illustrating exactly why she won the FIFA Best goalkeeping award back in February and why she’s got an ever-increasing fan club. While her teammates were looking to find their feet, she was assured at the back and did exactly what was needed to ensure England got off to a winning start against a tough opponent.

“They were really quick, very athletic, and we had to play quicker to stay out of the duels,” England boss Sarina Wiegman said afterwards. “I’m just happy we got the win and got three points in a very hard game.”

Top of Wiegman’s to-do list ahead of the next game against Denmark is improving their end product. You have to go back to England’s 1-1 draw with Brazil in April for their last goal from open play. Here it was Stanway’s first-half penalty which was the difference — and even then she saw her first effort saved, only to be given a chance to retake it thanks to the VAR deeming that Haiti goalkeeper Kerly Théus encroached off her line.

England did have a series of half chances — with 21 shots overall — but Alessia Russo had to rush her efforts, Rachel Daly saw a header saved, and crosses into the box were often just off the mark.

Goals have been one of the main subplots for England. Heading into this match the big England talking point was who would start up front. Back in the Euros it was Ellen White who got the nod the whole way through, but with her retirement and Beth Mead now out through injury, the Lionesses’ needed a new No. 9 to lead England into this tournament. Wiegman went for Russo, bringing on Daly after 76 minutes.

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While the England team picked itself in the Euros — Wiegman kept the same XI the whole way through — they need to start finding their scoring boots up front and the manager may yet rotate until she finds the most potent formula. But whatever mix she goes with, they have to find that accuracy in the final third.

“We’re missing ruthlessness. It’s easy to say, but what does that mean?” Wiegman said afterwards. “Sometimes it’s the connection with the cross, the timing of the cross, where the cross ends in the penalty box and connection in front of the goal. We were very close a couple of times to scoring. The defence was tough, we’ll keep trying and working on it and start tomorrow again.”

It is an England team still looking to click. With Mead, defender Leah Williamson and forward Fran Kirby all absent through injury, the team lack the same familiarity they had last summer. They haven’t played that much as a group and there were signs of that on Saturday.

Time and time again the ball went wide, but the wingers didn’t manage to cut inside and create the quality of chance needed to get past Haiti’s heroic keeper. Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp started, but neither put their stamp on the match; Lauren James was introduced on the hour mark and did cause trouble on the flanks, but the overall end product has to improve.

One of England’s main tasks is how to unlock the spine of the team. Ella Toone and Keira Walsh were well marked by Haiti and neither could dictate the tempo of the match; Stanway was England’s best outfield player, but the balance still looked a little off. While the result was better than the performance, there are still big areas to improve with Denmark and China to come in this group.

If they continue to rely on Earps to bail them out, they won’t reach the heights they are capable of at this tournament.

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