In front of a crowd of 13,188 at the Allianz Riviera, Nikita Parris put the Lionesses ahead with a 14th-minute penalty awarded for handball via VAR and Ellen White’s curled finish made it 2-0 in the 40th minute.
Having looked very much in control for most of the game, Phil Neville’s team, who were denied by some fine Lee Alexander saves and had two efforts chalked off for offside, then endured a nervy finale after Claire Emslie pulled a goal back with 11 minutes remaining.
While Scotland could not save themselves from defeat, they will take heart from their efforts in their first Women’s World Cup finals appearance, two years after being thrashed 6-0 by England in the sides’ last meeting, at Euro 2017.
The teams next play on Friday when Scotland face Japan in Rennes before England take on Argentina in Le Havre.
With Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon among those watching from the stands, Shelley Kerr’s side made a fairly bright start to the contest, with Caroline Weir having an early shot blocked, before they fell behind just prior to the quarter-hour mark as England benefited from VAR.
Fran Kirby’s cross struck Nicola Docherty on the arm and, after Czech referee Jana Adamkova watched footage back and pointed to the spot, Parris fired in from 12 yards.
Kirby sent a low shot just wide five minutes later and, as England continued to press, Alexander made an excellent block with her leg to keep out a strike from White, who then beat the goalkeeper with a header, only to see the flag up for offside.
Scotland responded with an Emslie strike that was comfortably caught by Karen Bardsley, before Alexander saved well with her leg again, denying Beth Mead, and then dealt with a White effort.
England doubled their advantage when Kirby got her boot to a ball from Alex Greenwood before Scotland captain Rachel Corsie, and the touch teed up White to beat Alexander.
Erin Cuthbert went close to pulling a goal back as she struck narrowly wide.
England had the ball in Scotland’s net again early in the second half, but Mead’s strike was another effort disallowed for offside.
After Emslie saw an attempt gathered by Bardsley, Alexander pulled off another great stop as she pushed away White’s volley.
Scotland then reduced the deficit when England captain Steph Houghton gave the ball away and Lisa Evans set up Emslie’s strike.
It made for a tense conclusion, but England were able to hang on for three points in Group D.
Neville demanded his side be “relentless” in maintaining their high standards for the rest of the World Cup after Scotland gave them a scare.
The manager said he was “pleased with the result”, but not the performance.
He said: “The first game is always the most difficult game.
“But we set certain standards and the players now need to keep meeting those standards and if we drop below those standards then we get second-half performances like we just got.
“I want us to play like we did in the first half for 90 minutes. We need to be relentless now as we want to be here for the next 37 days and to do that then every single one of us, myself included, have got to keep driving the standards all the time. The standards start with me.
“At 2-0 it is always a dangerous scoreline and we needed a third goal. Scotland have got good players, they’re a good team.”
Scotland manager Kerr took plenty of positives from her side’s debut performance at the Women’s World Cup finals.
“England are tipped to win this tournament so to run them so close, especially in the second half, is a positive,” she said.
“I didn’t think we played particularly well in the first half, but I’ve got to give England credit because they played with intensity and put us under pressure in the right areas and got their two goals.
“I think we came out in the second half and showed what we are capable of.”
Kerr refused to be drawn on the controversy surrounding the penalty decision, given when Kirby’s cross struck Docherty on the arm.
“I don’t want to comment on the VAR decision because the referees and the officials have got a very difficult job,” she said.
“What I want to do now is applaud England for their performance and we need to dissect our performance.
“We came into this tournament for the first time knowing that we just need to win one game.
“It would have been nice if it was the first one and we got something out of it, but it doesn’t have to be. We regroup and rest and recover and then go again against Japan.”
England: Bardsley, Bronze, Houghton, Bright (McManus 57), Greenwood, Walsh, Kirby (Stanway 82), Scott, Parris, White, Mead (Carney 71). Unused substitutes: Telford, Taylor, Duggan, Stokes, Williamson, Moore, Daly, Staniforth, Earps.
Scotland: Alexander, Howard (Arthur 75), Corsie, Beattie, Docherty (Smith 55), Evans, Christie Murray (Arnot 87), Little, Weir, Emslie, Cuthbert. Unused substitutes: Lynn, Love, Lauder, Crichton, Ross, Joelle Murray, Clelland, Brown, Fife.
Referee: Jana Adamkova (Czech Republic).
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