Lauren Hemp effort enough as England edge Nations League victory over Belgium

Lauren Hemp’s first-half strike was all it took for England to secure a vital 1-0 Nations League group-stage victory over Belgium in front of 28,321 at Leicester’s King Power Stadium.

Belgium had entered the contest as Group A1 leaders but by the final whistle they had been knocked off the top spot by the Netherlands, while the Lionesses moved up to second place.

The first of two October legs with the Red Flames also marked a return to England action for midfielder Fran Kirby, who came on as a substitute in the 65th minute after more than a year out due to a series of issues, including the knee injury and subsequent surgery that kept her out of contention for the World Cup.

England need to finish top of the group to progress in the tournament, which also serves as a qualifier for next summer’s Paris Olympics.

Both teams entered wearing black armbands in honour of England World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton, who died on Saturday morning.

Niamh Charles – one of three changes for Sarina Wiegman – got herself involved early, linking up with Alex Greenwood before cutting into the penalty area, where a flurry of chances for the hosts ended with Chelsea defender Charles sending an effort over the crossbar.

It was not long before the Lionesses were back on the prowl, Hemp forcing a quick one-handed reaction from Belgium goalkeeper Nicky Evrard, the ball bouncing threateningly loose from the one-handed stop but – to the relief of the visitors – away from any white shirts.

England players before the Belgium match
England need to finish top of the group to progress in the tournament (Joe Giddens/PA)

The Red Flames finally broke free and won a corner, initially handled by England, but the ball remained inside the Lionesses’ half where it was quickly collected by Tessa Wullaert, who floated a cross into Justine Vanhaevermaet.

The Everton midfielder connected and forced a save from Mary Earps, who spilled the stop and the ball clipped the post before she was able to cradle the rebound.

England soon took the lead following a narrow miss from Millie Bright, who connected with Chloe Kelly’s corner and pinged a backwards header off the right post, but the ball took a favourable bounce into the path of Hemp, who turned it past Evrard with her left foot.

Fran Kirby in action for England v Belgium
Fran Kirby came on as a substitute in the 65th minute after more than a year out due to a series of issues (Joe Giddens/PA)

Both sides had further first-half chances, with Earps forced into a precautionary dive when Wullaert’s effort deflected off Bright’s lower leg before Kassandra Missipo fired over.

England missed an opportunity to make it two when Alessia Russo could not quite connect with Charles’ delivery across the face of goal and another late chance for the Arsenal summer signing landed squarely in Evrard’s arms for a simple stop.

The Lionesses began the second half aggressively as Kelly’s cross deflected off Tine De Caigny in the area and into the path of Russo, who sent an effort over.

Earps elicited a roar when she leapt to her left to deny substitute Sarah Wijnants, but while the hosts enjoyed double their opponents’ three attempts on target as the encounter entered its 70th minute, they still had just Hemp’s opener to show for it.

Wiegman made two substitutions, swapping Russo for Rachel Daly and replacing Ella Toone with Kirby as England pushed for more, next through Greenwood, who aimed her free-kick for the top-right corner where it was tipped away by Evrard.

The Lionesses survived a scramble in front of Earps and Wiegman made another change, bringing on Jess Park for Kelly as the 85th minute approached.

England staged another late surge and perhaps should have scored more but – in the end – it was just Hemp who made it count.