Perhaps, on a bookshelf in the offices of the Football Association at Wembley Stadium, there is a leather-bound book called “How To Get Knocked Out Of A Major Tournament”. It’s a well-thumbed tome, of course, and the England team at this year’s Women’s World Cup couldn’t help but crib from its extensive advice in getting themselves eliminated from this year’s tournament at the hands of France at the end of a tumultuous match in Leverkusen last night. Twice last night England were within touching distance of a place the semi-finals of the competition, the rewards of which were blown wide open with the stunning defeat of Germany at the hands of Japan last night, but on this occasion it was not to be.
For all of the disappointment that the England team might feel this morning, though, the cold light of day reveals that, on the night, the best team won the match. France dominated possession from the very start and England’s goal came from a break and with the assistance of some poor positioning by the French goalkeeper. Still, though, England clung on, defending with increasing desperation until, with two minutes of the ninety on the clock left to play, France finally managed to crowbar their way back into the game. Extra-time was a slog, a game of attack versus defence which saw French players flit around the English penalty area like fireflies, raining in shots a varying accuracy upon Karen Bardsley’s goal.
Yet England held on for the penalty shoot-out and even led in it for a while after Bardsley, herself by now struggling with a shoulder injury which was clearly impeding her mobility, saved from Camile Abily with the opening kick. This was as good as things could have got for England, but the French team converted the rest of their kicks whilst Claire Rafferty pulled England’s penultimate kick wide and Faye White drove the final kick against the crossbar to confirm what some may have been thinking as soon as they saw the words “England” and “penalty shoot-out” in the same breath. For all of the disappointment that the players will feel this morning, though, the truth of the matter is that this tournament has seen England take another giant step in the right direction. If womens football is developing at the same, white hot pace that mens professional football did during its formative years, then England can continue to develop into one of the womens game’s international powerhouses.
For eighty-eight minutes in Leverkusen, though, France couldn’t find a way through the England defence – proof in itself, perhaps, that the England class of 2011 is a different matter altogether to the team that was swatted casually aside by the United States of America at the same stage of the competition four years ago. Within thirty seconds, Karen Carney’s curling pass put Kelly Smith through on goal. Smith managed to get herself and the ball around the French goalkeeper Céline Deville, but was pushed to an avute angle in doing so and her goal-bound shot was cleared by Laura Georges. This was good as events got for England for the first forty-five minutes. Occasionally careless in possession, they seemed to be over-run in midfield for long periods of the game, but the defence held out and stifled France’s attack to shots from distance which Bardsley coped with comfortably. They seemed relieved to get to half-time in a state of parity.
After fifty-nine minutes, however, England took the lead. There was a hint – perhaps more – of handball about Smith’s initial control of the ball, but with no whistle she brushed aside the attention of Georges and rolled the ball through to Jill Scott, who lifted her shot over Deville and in. With this goal, of course, France had no option but to attack relentlessly, and by the final ten minutes of the match they were laying absolute siege to the England goal. Bardsley saved excellently from Elodie Thomis’ whilst, from a corner, Laure LePailleur’s well-placed header was brilliantly cleared from the line by a diving header from Ellen White. With two minutes to play, though, the dam broke. England failed to clear a France attack and, from the edge of the penalty area, Elise Bussaglia curled the ball into the top corner of the net to send the match into extra-time. With Hope Powell having already used England’s three substitutes, an injury to Kelly Smith that left her barely able to stand and Bardlsey nursing an injury to her shoulder left England effectively reduced to ten, if not nine and a half, players. To get as far as a penalty shoot-out in such circumstances was their best chance of victory, but it was also not quite enough.
Received wisdom had held that there was a degree of irrelevance about these matches anyway, because the winners of all matches would eventually have to face Germany on their home patch at some point or other. Not any more, they won’t. The host nation had stuttered in their first two group matches but had started to look as if they were moving through their gears in their final group match against France. Last night, though, Japan failed to read the script that the rest of the world had been given and, three minutes into the second period of extra-time, Karina Maruyama scored the goal that knocked the host nation out of the tournament. That this defeat should have come at the hands of a team that England had so comfortably out-played in their final group match may only add to the “what if” feeling in the aftermath of England’s defeat last night. Japan’s win last night has made anything possible, from here on.
For all the disappointment from last night, however, there can be little doubt that the best team won the match between England and France. An England team losing on penalty kicks may cause some to idly wonder whether there is a psychological block that has imposed itself upon the womens team like a virus, but, of course, it would be almost impossible to definitively prove such a theory, and perhaps as much as the England team can do is to keep practicing them in the event that they may find themselves in the same position in Canada in four years time. It is to be hoped that the FA steps up investment in the womens game to allow England to continue their development, but only time will tell whether they have the foresight to do so.
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