On a night which started with hopes that England would put in a commanding performance on their first home game of 2016 against Belgium, the visitors put in a resolute performance of their own as the points were shared at the New York Stadium in Rotherham.
Janice Cayman’s strike early in the first half gave England a big scare that remained for most of the game, with the midfielder capitalising on a horrific error from goalkeeper Karen Bardsley. The no.1 missed her kick and Cayman was allowed to roll the ball into an empty net. Jill Scott’s late equaliser was enough to spare England’s blushes, but it should have been more.
The game started with England on the front foot, controlling possession but once again struggling to find the breakthrough that has regularly deserted them in games since last summer’s World Cup. Toni Duggan came closest, bending an effort over the bar after a clever free-kick.
Disaster struck in the 18th minute when Bardsley’s error allowed Cayman to put the Red Flames 1-0 up, silencing the home crowd and becoming the first player to score against England at home since 2005.
England struggled to find a way through a resolute Belgium side. Half chances for Duggan and Jill Scott came and went as Sampson’s side once again struggled for creativity in the final third.
The second half saw the introductions of Chelsea Ladies duo Karen Carney and Eni Aluko before the hour mark, with the former making an instant difference with her skill and direct running.
But it was the visitors who had the best chances to double their lead, with Tessa Wullaert shooting straight at Bardsley when running into the England box unmarked.
England pressed and sub Aluko should have done better from close range but she failed to get a proper connection on Alex Greenwood’s tantalising cross. The hosts came even closer a minute later when Carney’s brilliant pass found Williams free inside the box, but the midfielder pulled her shot well wide.
The introduction of Gemma Davison sparked further life into England and the equaliser finally came with less than minutes remaining when Jill Scott bundled the ball home after confusion in the six-yard box.
The goal gave the whole stadium a lift and England pressed continuously for the winner. Houghton’s free-kick deep into stoppage time was the closest the Lionesses came to a winner on a frustrating evening. But the side now ranked 28th in the world held out for a result which keeps them above England in the group, albeit having played a game more.
Mark Sampson now takes his side to Bosnia-Herzegovina on Tuesday with his team looking for a more convincing win than the 1-0 home win back in November.
England 1-1 Belgium J.Scott ’83, Cayman ’18
England: Bardsley – A.Scott, Houghton (c), Stoney, Greenwood – Williams, Nobbs, Chapman (Davison ’78), Stokes (Carney ’56) – J.Scott – Duggan (Aluko ’64)
Unused subs: Telford, Bronze, Bassett, Flaherty
Referee: Gyongyi Gaal (HUN)