The road to France began here for England, in a corner of east Manchester brimming with excitement, but this disappointing 1-0 defeat to Canada was the first bump along the way.
In the build-up to this first World Cup warm-up friendly, head coach Phil Neville told of how he had asked his players where they wish to be in five years’ time. “To be talked about like the All Blacks,” he revealed.
The byword for dominance in international sport is some bar to set, but the fact that the Lionesses can contemplate reaching such heights – and that Neville felt comfortable declaring their aspirations publicly – speaks to the confidence within this group.
It is matched outside of it, too. Optimism is growing around this team’s fortunes after their third-place finish at the last World Cup, this year’s successful SheBelieves Cup campaign and the increasing profile that the women’s game is starting to enjoy.
Such optimism is not necessarily misplaced and will only grow as this summer’s tournament moves closer. Yet it will also have been checked by this defeat, decided by a late Christine Sinclair goal in front of a 5,682-strong crowd which arrived anticipating much more.
Canada, in fairness, are the best of the four sides the Lionesses will face before France. Eliminated by England on home soil at the last World Cup but only two places below Neville’s side in the world rankings, their physicality and energy caused problems.
That was particularly the case in what was a ponderous first half from England’s perspective. Neville’s side created precious little in attack. The few glimpses of promise they did carve out were undone by the poor touch of Nikita Parris, who was strangely out-of-sorts on at her club’s home ground.
In defence, meanwhile, England should have been made to pay for preventable errors. Three botched attempts at a clearance allowed Nichelle Prince, Canada’s liveliest player in the opening 45 minutes, to end one of the many spells of sustained pressure with a low, goal-bound attempt that was blocked.
Jessie Fleming could have capitalised on further error-prone England defending, but when Steph Houghton’s sliced clearance fell her way on the edge of the penalty area, her attempt was both wide and over the crossbar.
Canada were enjoying themselves with possession in England territory far too much and far too often. That changed, at least. The second half brought improvement from England, as has tended to be the case during Neville’s spell in charge so far, but not enough to truly unsettle their opponents.
A promising spell immediately after the break brought several half-chances, the best of which fell to Toni Duggan. After Parris’ cross was neatly laid off by Jodie Taylor, Duggan found herself able to turn against pressure from the Canadian defence but trickled a tame shot wide of the post.
And despite England’s early dominance once the two sides re-emerged, that would be their most threatening moment of the evening. It was all quite reminiscent of another England team 12 months ago, actually playing at a World Cup rather than preparing for it, whose groundwork was sound but who struggled to create.
Nine minutes from time came a goal that Canada’s second-half display had not fully deserved but one England could have little complaint about. When Prince edged ahead of her marker and cracked a sweet volley off the crossbar, Sinclair was on hand to convert the rebound.
Neville was not overly concerned when giving his post-match analysis. The air of confidence shows little sign of waning but, two months away from the tournament, there were lessons here to learn.