With thirty minutes left to play in Dresden last night, it looked as if the England team was heading out of the 2011 Womens World Cup. A goal down against New Zealand, having picked up a draw against Mexico in their opening match, they looked all but out of the competition, but two goals from Jill Scott and Jess Clarke managed to pull an iron from the fire, and they now go into their final match against Japan knowing that a draw will definitely see them through to the quarter-finals and that even should they lose, they could still go through to the quarter-finals should results elsewhere go their way.
To an extent, England should have not found themselves in this position in the first place. They started reasonably brightly, but went a goal behind thanks to some fairly horrific defending which allowed the excellent – and outstandingly named – Sarah Gregorious to score from close range. Things could have got worse for England managed to haul themselves back into the game, but optimism at the result must be limited by the knowledge that their final group match will be against a Japan team that was oustanding against Mexico and that, should they get through to the quarter-finals of the competition, they will have to play one of the two most impressive teams in the entire tournament so far, in the form of Germany or France.
On the evidence presented by the tournament so far, then, England will face an enormously uphill battle in order to make the semi-finals of the tournament. Germany, the hosts, started the competition as short odds favourites with the bookmakers to win the entire competition and, although they have occasionally looked racked with nerves in their opening two matches, they have still managed to win both matches, and a point oft-made before the tournament started – that if any team other than Germany is to win this World Cup, they will have to beat Germany on their home patch – remains a valid one. It says something for the quality of their team that we can still only say that they can only improve when they have already won their first two matches of the tournament.
The other two teams in this particular triumvirate, Japan and France, have been the pleasant surprises of the tournament so far. If both are outperforming modest pre-season expectations, the question may be how far up any upward curve they may both may be at present. We already know that England have to play Japan in their final group match – what has Hope Powell got in mind to take care of the Japanese captain Homare Sawa, who scored a hat-trick against Mexico in their previous match? – and perhaps one of the straws that England supporters will clutch at will be the possibility of Japan not firing on all cylinders on account of already being through to the quarter-finals in top place in the group.
France, meanwhile, have been one of the surprise packages of the tournament so far. Their 4-0 trouncing of a Canadian team that had given the hosts a run for their money previously in their second group match was, to put it simply, the stand out performance of the tournament by anybody so far. We will find out a little more about them with their ultimate test – their final group match is against Germany – but on the evidence of what we have seen so far, they would also provide formidable opposition in the quarter-finals. The route to as much as semi-final appearance would be a magnificent achievement for this England team, but their performances so far have only inspired confidence that they can perform with anything like the best in fits and starts. It was suggested before the tournament started that this England team peaked in the European Championships two years ago, and there has been little to contradict this assessment on the basis of their last two matches.
So, it has been a mixed bag from England so far. They visibly melted in the heat of their opening match against Mexico and could consider themselves somewhat fortunate to have come away from that match with a win. Having gone a goal down against New Zealand, they might have folded completely but that they managed to drag themselves back into the match they showed a certain strength of character in order to go on and win it. And while some of the players might not yet have managed to hit the best of their form, Eniola Aluko was an electrifying presence against New Zealand and has the capability of delivering more of the same. The fatalism of an element of the culture from which the England teams comes would seem to suggest that getting into the quarter-finals would be an achievement and that losing to either France or Germany would be no disgrace. In a tournament that has been nowhere near as one-sided as many had feared that it would be before a ball was kicked, though, it might just be possible that England can get further than this. Their tournament, however, seems likely to get a hell of a lot more difficult before it gets any easier.
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