Kirby reaching peak form ahead of knockout stages as Russo makes case


ngland offered further demonstration of their ruthlessness and credentials as potential European champions with a 5-0 win over Northern Ireland at St. Mary’s.

The Lionesses had already booked their place in the quarter-final as group winners with the record-breaking 8-0 demolition of Norway on Monday but head coach Sarina Wiegman, who was absent with Covid, was in no mood to relax, naming an unchanged team.

Her side responded by showing no mercy on the night, refusing to let up even after the contest was effectively settled by goals from Fran Kirby and Beth Mead in the final five minutes of the first half.

Substitute Alessia Russo’s clinical double and an unfortunate own goal from Kelsie Burrows ensured England finished the group with nine points, 14 goals for and none against — form which should strike fear into potential quarter-final opponents Spain and Denmark.

Admittedly, the hosts made hard work of finding the breakthrough in front of more than 30,000 supporters on the south coast but the result never appeared in doubt once Kirby curled home a fine opener in the 40th minute.

Russo gives Wiegman quarter-final headache

This was supposed to be the game when Ellen White equalled Wayne Rooney as England’s record goal-scorer but she squandered her only chance of a frustrating 45-minute outing, firing wide when 1v1 with the goalkeeper.

And White now faces an anxious wait to discover if she will have another shot at history in the quarter-final after her replacement Russo made her case for inclusion on Wednesday with a brilliant eight-minute double.

The Manchester United striker headed home Mead’s cross with her first touch and added her second, and England’s fourth, with a brilliant turn and clinical finish from Ella Toone’s pass.

White has the pedigree in big tournaments – she has already outscored Rooney at major finals – but Russo has looked sharper in front of goal in the group stage, leaving Wiegman with a tough decision to make.

Kirby the difference-maker

England needed a moment to break down a well-drilled and stubborn Northern Ireland side and it was no surprise it came through Kirby.

The Chelsea playmaker earned the breakthrough with a characteristic touch of class, curling home first-time from the edge of the area — and opening the floodgates.

Kirby was also the difference in the opening game against Austria, creating Mead’s winner with a brilliant cross, and it is increasingly clear that England will need her creativity against more accomplished opponents in the knockouts.

Perhaps more encouragingly than her goal, Kirby completed 90 minutes — a significant step given her fitness concerns over the past year.

The signs suggest England’s comeback queen should be reaching peak fitness and form in time for the knockouts, which bodes well for the country.

Fran Kirby could be hitting top form at just the right time for England

/ PA

Wiegman faces anxious wait

The absence of Wiegman was never likely to have a major impact on this game, given the situation in the group and the disparity between the two sides.

But the Dutchwoman now faces an anxious wait to see if she can recover in time to be on the touchline for a far tougher quarter-final examination on Wednesday night in Brighton.

It is difficult to say if England’s slightly laboured opening 40 minutes had anything to do with Wiegman’s absence but certainly they were missing a presence on the touchline, with No.2 Arjan Veurink choosing to stay in his seat for the duration (in stark contrast to Northern Ireland’s Kenny Shiels, who was constantly barking instructions to his players from the edge of his technical area).

Veurink was a more visible presence in the second half but clearly England will benefit from Wiegman’s return for the knockouts, when far more in-game management is likely to be required.

Mead on course for Golden Boot

Mead continues to lead the way in the race for the Golden Boot after doubling England’s lead with a deflected effort.

And the Arsenal forward should have finished the second half with a hat-trick of assists, only for Russo to fire over the bar from her cutback.

No-one at these finals has been more decisive and clinical in the final third than Mead so far and she is on course for the tournament of a lifetime.

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