England close in on last 16 after James sinks Denmark but Walsh injury a blow

<span>Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA</span>” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/8lxT3p7DRPdAw0y55KDn8g–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Nw–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/242cb5a513db0969d76fe1c56a3d388c” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/8lxT3p7DRPdAw0y55KDn8g–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Nw–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/242cb5a513db0969d76fe1c56a3d388c”></img></p>
<p><figcaption><span>Photograph: Zac Goodwin/PA</span></figcaption></p>
<p>Four words to crush England’s World Cup chances tumbled out of the mouth of influential midfielder Keira Walsh as the medical staff raced towards her: “I’ve done my knee.”</p>
<p>England were cruising against Denmark, Lauren James’s majestic touch and strike having given the Lionesses an early lead. That proved enough to secure victory, but the rest of the match was coloured by the injury to Barcelona player Walsh.</p>
<p><span>Related: </span>Keira Walsh leaves England v Denmark on stretcher with knee injury</p>
<p>Fans and players alike could be forgiven for being heavily triggered: Sarina Wiegman’s squad had already been cruelly stripped of Euro 2022 captain, Leah Williamson, and that tournament’s golden boot winner, Beth Mead, both with anterior cruciate ligament injuries. Creative magician Fran Kirby also missed out on the World Cup squad due to a different type of knee injury.</p>
<p>With Ellen White having retired, the only remaining vertebrae in England’s spine was Walsh, and she was perhaps the most crucial.</p>
<p>The 26-year-old is arguably irreplaceable. She is central to England’s buildup play and defensive strength. For years, a stand-in for the visionary midfield passer has been sought, with Williamson trialled in the role for both club and country and, while she proved effective, she is no Walsh.</p>
<p>In the 35th minute Walsh stretched towards the ball and her boot caught in the turf, jarring her right leg sending her crumbling to the ground. She knew instantly what was wrong and, as Lucy Bronze and Georgia Stanway raced to her side, the stunned midfielder could be seen saying “get off, get off” before the TV cameras showed her breaking the news about her knee to the approaching medical team.</p>
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The England midfielder Keira Walsh returns to the bench after a knee injury forced her off in the first half. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

The Manchester City midfielder Laura Coombs was thrown on as Walsh was stretchered off, seemingly overcome with emotion as she lay on her back and reality set in.

Stanway dropped deeper to fill the hole left by Walsh but with the Bayern Munich midfielder on a booking from England’s win against Haiti in their Group D opener, she was one yellow card away from missing England’s next game.

Wiegman’s side had started brightly in front of an overwhelmingly England crowd at the Sydney Football Stadium. Having said “I want to make changes”, Wiegman made two to the starting lineup to face Denmark, with Rachel Daly moved back into the left-back berth she occupied during the Euros, despite finishing the WSL season top scorer as Aston Villa’s No 9. Alex Greenwood shifted inwards alongside Millie Bright as a result, with Jess Carter on the bench, while Lauren Hemp made way for James.

The impact of the changes – rare under Wiegman, who stuck with the same starting XI through the Euros last year – was instant. With Daly driving forward from the left, it allowed James to cut inside and almost become a second No 10 alongside Ella Toone.

Just six minutes in and the newcomers combined to give England the lead in blistering style that heavily hinted Wiegman had found her best starting XI for the tournament. The ball was worked wide to Daly who fed James and the Chelsea forward powered towards goal before lashing past Lene Christensen into the far corner. It was an emphatic announcement on the world stage from the 21-year-old, who has long been heralded as the most technically talented England footballer since Kelly Smith.

Lauren James lets fly from outside the area to put England ahead

Lauren James lets fly from outside the area to put England ahead. Photograph: David Gray/AFP/Getty Images

England continued to dominate possession and look threatening, while Denmark struggled to find Pernille Harder, who began the game as a striker, leaving her isolated. Denmark threatened periodically though, capitalising on lapses in concentration from the England players.

The injury to Walsh did not shift momentum, but it flattened the game. James looked bright throughout, however, and the introduction of Hemp and Bethany England in place of Toone and Alessia Russo injected some energy back into Wiegman’s side.

Forward Amalie Vangsgaard, who scored in Denmark’s win over China, crashed a header off the post with five minutes remaining, leaving English nerves frayed, but Wiegman’s side had done just enough. How they move forward without Walsh, though, will be the biggest concern.

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