Lionesses European Championship qualification hopes take a huge blow with defeat to France at St James’

Elisa de Almeida (midden) leidt de festiviteiten na het scoren van de openingstreffer van Frankrijk in hun 2-1 overwinning op Engeland <i>(Image: PA)</i>” bad-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/ fe8be68d60e0b3e8cd4be3f” src= “–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/ 0e0b3e8cd4be3f”/><button class=

Elisa de Almeida (centre) leads the celebrations after scoring France’s opening goal in their 2–1 win over England (Image: PA)

Regardless of whether they retain their European Championship trophy, the Lionesses may not even get the chance to defend it at this rate.

Tonight’s 2-1 defeat to France at St James’ Park means Sarina Wiegman’s European champions have won just one of their first three qualifiers for next summer’s tournament in Switzerland, with trips to France and Sweden still to come . They currently sit third in their group, a result that would only be good enough for a play-off place if they fail to improve in the remaining matches. England would be favorites in a play-off match, but as reigning champions that would hardly be a good look.

As they led through Beth Mead’s finish, the Lionesses’ inability to defend set-pieces proved to be their downfall. Both of France’s goals came from corners, and although they were the result of excellent finishes from Elisa de Almeida and Marie-Antoinette Katoto, England’s defense has not really convinced since those golden moments at the European Championship two summers ago.

Has the side deteriorated? Is new blood needed? Time will tell, but after a period of seemingly relentless progress, it’s only fair that some damning questions are asked as the results start to turn around.

Tonight’s match marked the Lionesse’s first visit to Newcastle after previous matches in Sunderland and Middlesbrough. The match was the first leg of an international double-header that saw Gareth Southgate’s men take on Bosnia at St James’ Park on Monday, and attracted a crowd of 42,561. Even by North East sporting standards, that was quite a show of support for the decision to bring the match to Tyneside.

The home support, which included a large number of families, was primarily to support the Lionesses, who have become a household name thanks to their success in the last Euros, which were won on home soil in 2022.

For one of the heroes of that triumph, however, last night would prove to be a bittersweet experience. Mary Earps had been eagerly awaiting her 50th appearance in an England shirt, but less than a minute later the goalkeeper winced in pain as she turned awkwardly while making a routine clearance.

Earps tried to continue after a long period of treatment, but the wince that accompanied her next kick on the field confirmed that the problem had not been resolved. She left the field in tears and was replaced by Chelsea’s Hannah Hampton.

The early setback seemed to subdue the England players, with the match quickly turning into a cagey affair in which neither side seemed willing to take too many risks.

Normally, England full-backs Lucy Bronze and Jess Carter like to tear up the touchline, often as auxiliary wingers. Here, with France’s slick midfield play holding them back, they had to be much more conservative.

Yet the Lionesses were still the team applying the most pressure, and they should have broken the deadlock midway through the first half.

Alessia Russo sent Lauren Hemp clear on the overlap on the left, but as the winger picked out Ella Toone with her pull-back, the Manchester United striker pushed a poor first effort wide of the target. Show army? Not quite.

Hemp’s ability to find space on the left was a key part of England’s attack all evening, and she was heavily involved again as the hosts claimed the lead after half an hour.

Another pull-back was headed to Georgia Stanway before the midfielder was wiped out by a mistimed slide challenge from Selma Bacha. The tackle would almost certainly have led to a penalty, but before referee Marta Huerta De Aza had a chance to intervene, the ball broke to an unmarked Mead, who calmly powered home from close range. Born in Whitby, raised in Hinderwell, and a product of both Middlesbrough and Sunderland’s academies, there could hardly have been a more fitting goalscorer on North East soil.

England’s lead was deserved given the composed way they controlled the midfield, but without Hampton it would have been wiped out within four minutes. Maelle Lakrar’s header from a corner went in until Hampton flung himself to his left to keep the ball out.

The chance hinted that France might take advantage of set pieces, and indeed, when the visitors equalized four minutes before half-time, their goal came from a corner. That said, there wasn’t much England could have done to keep the ball out.

De Almeida headed away from her own goal as she turned to hook in a first-time volley from the edge of the penalty area, but she caught the ball as clean as a whistle and it flew past Hampton and into the top corner. Hemp, who was the nearest defender, was pushed by Wendie Renard, but the quality of De Almeida’s finish was still sensational.

After drawing level, France’s attacking players sensed an opportunity to make England suffer even more, and after dancing their way into the penalty area early in the second half, Delphine Cascarino dragged a low shot wide the pole. The English defenders, who held off the French striker, were lucky to get away with their passive approach.

However, halfway through the second half, the home team’s lax defense proved to be their downfall. Another set-piece caused confusion in the Lionesses’ defense, with a succession of defenders missing the opportunity to clear their lines. The ball was delivered to Katoto at the back post and the Paris Saint-Germain striker turned to fire a decisive strike into the bottom corner. Kylian Mbappe may have failed to fire at St James’ Park last autumn, but this was a PSG striker enjoying his trip to Tyneside.

England (4-3-3): Earps (Hampton 8); Bronze, Williamson, Clear, Carter; Toone, Walsh, Stanway (Kirby 79); Mead (Kelly 79), Russo, hemp.

France (4-4-2): Peyraud-Magnin; Karchaoui, Renard, Lakrar, de Almeida (Perisset 86); Diani, Bacha, Toletti, Dali (le Garrec 90); Cascarino (Henry 69), Katoto (Ribadeira 90).

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