Defensive chaos saw England give away a two-goal lead against Belgium before earning a draw with a Nikita Parris penalty.
It is rare that a friendly draws much attention but the first outing of Phil Neville’s side since the World Cup meant there was a degree of curiosity. This was the start of a two-year plan – a first look at the players and formations Neville will experiment with in the attempt to reach an enticing home European Championship finals.
And there was an added celebratory feel with Lucy Bronze becoming the first Englishwoman to win Uefa’s women’s player of the year award having beaten her Lyon teammates Ada Hegerberg and Amandine Henry to the prize.
However, two goals from Ella van Kerkhoven and an own goal undid the work of Jodie Taylor and Beth Mead, before Parris equalised. The outcome added to concerns about England’s defensive frailty and killed the mood. If poor scheduling meant Bronze was forced to miss the Uefa party in Monaco, it was England’s backline who ensured no party in Leuven.
Bronze showed an early glimpse of why Neville is so keen to play her in the middle, busting a gut to chase a loose ball picked up by the Belgium keeper, Nicky Evrard.
Having underwhelmed in previous brief midfield outings, Bronze stayed glued to her more traditional right-back berth at the World Cup. But it is a concept that has stuck with Neville and, particularly in the context of a light midfield – Jill Scott rested and Izzy Christiansen and Jordan Nobbs yet to return from injury – it makes sense. Few in the England camp play with the confidence and relentless drive of the Lyon defender.
England’s first goal came from an equally exciting source. The 20-year-old Georgia Stanway, sitting in the No 10 role usually occupied by the injured Fran Kirby, stopped in space on the edge of the box before slipping a light curling ball between two defenders and around a third, inch perfect to the feet of Jodie Taylor. She had read the pass, broken free and could not miss. It was a moment of brilliance from the young Manchester City forward, who seems to be coming of age following an assured season capped by an FA Cup final goal.
Moments after the opener Taylor turned provider but the hard work was done by Bronze. Going to ground under a challenge she managed to backheel the ball to Taylor, whose shot could only be palmed into the path of an incoming Beth Mead to double England’s lead.
Bronze was on the back post to poke Heleen Jaques’ header from a corner off the line but a scramble to recover the ball saw it ping-pong between Bronze and Carly Telford and slip painfully over the line.
Moments before the break Belgium punished England again, this time from the left wing. Manchester City’s Tessa Wullaert beat Rachel Daly with ease and swung a cross towards the middle and Ella van Kerkhoven headed home. And the second half began with Belgium in the ascendency, Janice Cayman curling a shot inches wide from the edge of the box only a minute in.
England pushed hard and Stanway continued to shine. A defence-splitting pass from Keira Walsh put her through and the young forward took the ball on to her right foot and fired a shot that Evrard fumbled but recovered.
More chaos in the box, a feature of England’s World Cup campaign, and worryingly of Neville’s tenure, then gave the hosts the lead. They broke at pace but, with seven players back, England should have been troubled.Houghton was able to clear but prodded the ball straight to Van Kerkhoven, who fired in from close range.
Belgium laboured after that but without much joy and handball byTine de Caigny gave England the chance to level. Parris had been relieved of penalty duties for the World Cup semi-final against USA following consecutive misses but here she stepped up to fire into the roof of the net.