Coming into form at the right time is a critical aspect of tournament football, but it is one that occasionally feels as if it is overlooked. This evening, against a team that played some sublime football in their previous match, England put in a performance which suggested that they might just be doing exactly this and, while it would be premature to suggest that they could win the tournament, a comfortable win in their final group match this evening against Japan saw them continue the upward trajectory that they have followed since the start of the tournament. Of course, we could question how the commitment of the Japanese team by might have been affected by having already qualified with two wins from two matches, but any team can only play the team that they are up to play against.
One of the criticisms previously levelled at the England coach Hope Powell is that she may carry a certain degree of tactical inflexibility – a criticism that might have been considered to have some legs after the drab draw with Mexico in their opening match – but this certainly didn’t seem to be the case this evening. Powell shuffled her pack this evening and, whilst Japan had previously been stylistically compared with Barcelona, the England midfield got in amongst their players tonight, stifled Japan’s pass and move technique and prevented them from flowing in the same way that they had in their previous two matches in this tournament. This organised, poised performance was topped off with two magnificent goals, one of which was a genuine contender for any goal of the season awards that will be floating about come the end of the tournament.
For fiteen minutes, there was reason for England’s support to be concerned. Japan, assured on the ball and moving around the pitch with confidence, looked as difficult to play against as their previous performance against Mexico might have suggested, but after fifteen minutes, and more or less from nothing, England took the lead. Karen Carney seemed in an innocuous position when she collected the ball inside her own half, but her long pass to Ellen White was inch perfect, as was White’s finish, which saw the ball lifted over the Japanese goalkeeper Kaihori from eighteen yards out before dropping deliciously under the crossbar and in. The goal, perhaps predictably, visibly lifted the entire England team but, while Japan continued to press, it was White who came the closest over the remainder of the half with an acrobatic which forced Kaihori to save at full stretch.
Four minutes into the second half, Japan were presented with a gaping opportunity to bring themselves level, but spurned it when Miyama’s free-kick left the England defence flat-footed, only for Nagasato to toe-poke the ball wide from six yards out. Whilst England remained well-organised, though it was starting to feel as if Japan were slowly, surely and patiently managing to work a way back into the match. Just after the hour, though, Hope Powell made a change that sured up England’s position. It was a bold move, replacing Kelly Smith with Eniola Aluko, but within five minutes England had doubled their advantage. Rachel Unitt crossed from the left and Yankey was the quickest off the mark, getting ahead of her marker before looping the ball over Kaihori and in.
Japan dominated possession for much of the final quarter of the match, but England looked confident and composed by this time. A sign of the assurance now flowing through the team could be gauged from Karen Bardsley, who had to endure a degree of criticism after Mexico’s equalising goal in the opening match, coming out ten yards to claim a corner with a confidence which indicated that, somewhere in the previous seventy-odd minutes, a switch had been tripped in the collective psyche of the England team. By the final ten minutes, England were confidently stopping any Japanese attacks and, at full-time, there could be little question that the better team on the night had won. That their opponents this evening are ranked amongst the top half-dozen sides in the world is in itself an indicator of the strength of England’s performance this evening.
At the start of this evening, there remained a question mark over whether England would even qualify for the quarter-finals of this tournament. A defeat tonight and a big win for Mexico against New Zealand would have led to their elimination form this World Cup. As it turned out, a 2-2 draw meant that they would have gone through regardless of the result this evening, but winning the group carries a reward of its own – at the time of writing, Germany lead France in their final qualifying match, all of which means that, should things stay as they are, England will play France in the quarter-finals while Japan would face the ominous task of a match against Germany. France will be a tough match. They will all be enormously tough matches from now on. England, however, will look forward to this match with the confidence of a team that is looking as if it is coming into form at the right time. This may not be enough for England to win the 2011 Womens World Cup – Brazil have looked formidable in patches and Germany, one suspects, are still not quite at full speed yet, to name but two – but it at least gives them a decent shot at making the semi-finals of the World Cup, and it has been a very long time indeed since we have been able to say that with confidence about any England team.
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