Who wants the Lionesses' No.9 shirt?! England women winners & losers as both Rachel Daly and Alessia Russo falter in goalless draw with Portugal

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Alessia Russo Rachel Daly split England women 2023
In England's 2023 Women's World Cup send-off game, the pair both got 45 minutes to show what they could do, but neither really grabbed the opportunity

England’s send-off friendly against Portugal on Saturday afternoon was expected to be relatively straight-forward. Many thought that Sarina Wiegman would field her full-strength XI, while considering the injury absence of stand-in captain Millie Bright, and the Lionesses would win the match. In the end, neither of those things happened.

The win didn’t come, with England held to a goalless draw by a team that defended admirably, even if their hosts should’ve found the back of the net with the chances they created. The line-up was a surprise, too.

It’s anticipated that Alex Greenwood will be Bright’s centre-back partner at the World Cup, with skipper Leah Williamson ruled out with an ACL injury, but she started at left-back on Saturday as Wiegman opted for a youthful centre-back duo of Esme Morgan and Jess Carter, the latter having been seemingly leading the race to start on the left in Australia.

Up top, Alessia Russo, who has largely had a stranglehold on the No.9 shirt since Ellen White’s retirement last summer, was on the bench, as the Women’s Super League’s Golden Boot winner, Rachel Daly, got the nod to start, while Lauren James was on the right in favour of Chloe Kelly.

With plenty of experimental subs coming as the game went on, there was plenty to digest as England played their final game on home soil before the World Cup. So, who did the afternoon bode well for? And who struggled to make their mark? GOAL breaks down the winners & losers from Stadium MK...

  1. WINNER: Esme Morgan

    WINNER: Esme Morgan

    With Bright out injured for Portugal’s visit, someone was set to get an opportunity to show what they could do in the heart of defence and it proved to be Morgan, who was quietly impressive in England’s backline. The Manchester City product has primarily played at right-back this past season and struggled at centre-back in the Lionesses’ shock defeat to Australia in April, their only loss to date of Wiegman’s tenure.

    Given she was thrown into a new partnership in the role and facing a team with extremely pacey forwards, it made Morgan’s display all the more impressive, with her confidently reading play several times to ensure she wasn’t caught out by the visitors’ dangerous attack. If Bright is not fit for that opening game against Haiti, Morgan has certainly put her case forward to start in Brisbane.

  2. LOSER: Ella Toone

    LOSER: Ella Toone

    After being a super-sub during last year’s Euros, Ella Toone has assumed the role as England’s No.10 with Fran Kirby restricted by injuries for the past 12 months. But after having a breakout summer in 2022, and despite her obvious quality, the Manchester United midfielder has struggled to impact games as effectively as a starter for her country.

    On Saturday, she was replaced at half-time by Kelly in a change that moved James from the wing to the No.10 role - and the Chelsea star was brilliant. It poses serious questions over Toone’s place in Wiegman’s XI going into the World Cup.

    Although there are sometimes concerns around James’ longevity in games as a starter, she was very effective in the middle against Portugal as soon as she was put there. Given Toone was great off the bench last year, she could then be the player to take James off for if she starts to fade.

    Either way, this match will have given Wiegman plenty of food for thought when it comes to the final piece of her midfield three.

  3. WINNER: Lauren James

    WINNER: Lauren James

    James is still battling for a starting spot in England’s XI this summer, with her a clearly talented player but one still very young who is settling into life at the top level after niggling injuries.

    Playing her in a No.10 role is a suggestion that has long been called for by fans, but not often implemented by coaches - making Wiegman‘a decision to trial the Chelsea star as a playmaker in the second half on Saturday a little bit of a surprise. What was not a shock is that she was superb there.

    James’ wonderful first touch and vision were evident throughout the second 45 minutes in Milton Keynes, with the way she threaded Russo through on goal a stand-out example. After this, Wiegman will surely be considering her as an option in midfield, rather than just in the wide areas.

  4. LOSER: No.9 shirt

    LOSER: No.9 shirt

    With the amount of experimentation and rotation, for many players it felt like Saturday was an audition to be in the starting XI for England this summer, particularly for Daly and Russo, whom Wiegman gave 45 minutes each up front.

    Daly top-scored in the WSL this past season and many have called for her to start for her country as a result. She did at the weekend and she showed her excellent movement in the first half, but the players around her failed to find those runs often enough.

    Given Daly has been something of a back-up to Russo, that’s not a massive surprise. Lauren Hemp, a fixture on the Lionesses’ left wing, spoke in midweek about building that understanding with the Aston Villa striker, and it’s evident that it’s still something that needs to grow between Daly and the wingers because she hasn’t played tons of minutes as England’s No.9.

    When Russo came on at half-time, her movement was found very, very often by her team-mates - but she squandered three huge chances to find the back of the net.

    It remains to be seen who the front-runner to start up top for England this summer is as a result, with neither player firmly claiming the No.9 shirt in this game.

  5. WINNER: Sarina Wiegman

    WINNER: Sarina Wiegman

    Wiegman’s approach to this game was excellent. While some coaches might’ve simply put out their best available XI in order to sign off with a win, the Dutchwoman used it as an opportunity to try out several things.

    Whether it be a new centre-back partnership, Greenwood at left-back, the different centre-forward options or James as a No.10, plenty of different options were trialled in Milton Keynes to give Wiegman plenty of data ahead of the World Cup.

    This World Cup is massively different for England compared to the Euros. There is jet lag to factor in, plus the absence of a few key names and an extra game compared to last summer’s tournament. As a result, Wiegman may have to rotate a little more, and her team selection and substitutions on Saturday meant she got plenty of info about her squad ahead of some big decisions in Australia.

  6. LOSER: Alex Greenwood

    LOSER: Alex Greenwood

    When England’s players lined up at kick-off, it surprised many to see Greenwood operating on the left of the defence. With it anticipated that she’ll partner Bright at centre-back at the World Cup and with Carter seemingly Wiegman’s preferred left-back, most expected both to start in those roles at Stadium MK, with another centre-back option slotted in alongside Greenwood.

    The Man City defender used to play on the left in years gone by, but her switch to a central role has been extremely successful, making her one of the leading names in her position in the WSL. One of the big reasons why she is so good there is because of her ability on the ball, her wonderful vision matched by great passing range and brilliant execution.

    Not only is Greenwood a little rusty at left-back, her link-up with Hemp down the left was rarely telepathic on Saturday, and she just cannot have the same influence on her team in possession there. Morgan and Carter both did very well at the weekend, but Greenwood was unable to shine in her role because it no longer suits her strengths as a footballer.