The Chelsea winger Karen Carney hit a hat-trick as England rediscovered their scoring touch to sweep aside mediocre opposition and climb to within a point of Euro 17 qualifying group leaders Belgium, with a game in hand.
Against a Serbia team that sit 41 places below them, at 45 in the world rankings, and whom they will face again in Stara Pazova on Tuesday, Mark Sampson’s side put themselves well within sight of reaching next year’s finals in the Netherlands, with three qualifiers left to play.
Carney’s three goals, the first of them from the penalty spot, were added to by strikes from Liverpool left-back Alex Greenwood, Houston Dash striker Rachel Daly, on her senior international debut, Notts County striker Ellen White and Manchester City midfielder Izzy Christiansen.
It was a lack of goals in recent games that had prompted Sampson to bring in Daly as one of five changes to the team that scraped a 1-0 win against Bosnia & Herzegovina – world ranking 62 – in their previous Euro 17 qualifier.
The head coach also opted for a more offensive formation, utilising two players rather than one up front and a diamond midfield – a line-up which that had served him well in the early stages of his two-and-a-half-year tenure. Daly’s strike partner, White, was prominent in the early action as England pressed right from the kick-off, the Notts County player hooking a 12-yard shot narrowly over the Serbia crossbar, then striking the near post with a fierce cross-shot.
The captain, Steph Houghton, was denied a 10th-minute opening goal when her 20-yard free-kick was brilliantly saved by the Serbia goalkeeper, Susanne Nilsson. But six minutes later, the first goal arrived when Greenwood drove an angled shot just inside the far post. In the 34th minute White was brought down for a penalty that Carney scored to double the lead.
Daly opened her England account with a close-range finish from White’s pass, three minutes before half-time.
And White, outstanding up front, deservedly put her name on the scoresheet with a shot into the roof of the net six minutes after the interval.
The game became a rout a minute later as Christiansen turned in a rebound off a defender from a shot by Carney, who added her second goal when she bundled the ball over the line from a Greenwood corner on the hour, then completed her hat-trick with an overhead kick.
The substitute Nikita Parris, who like Daly was making her international debut, twice went close to finding the net in the closing stages, but England were unable to add to their already prodigious goal haul.
Sampson and his players will fly out to Serbia on Sunday knowing that victory on Tuesday will put them on top of the group and – 11 months after winning bronze at the Women’s World Cup – within touching distance of reaching their seventh successive major championship finals.
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