There were far too many aspects to our game which paled in comparison to the expectations I have come to expect of my players during our defeat to New Zealand. A lack of conviction was on display from the first whistle to the very last. It simply wasn’t good enough against a side who we should have imposed ourselves on more than we did, with all due respect. There were concerns to be had heading into our opener against Scotland, but I was pleased with the reaction from the players during training in the days leading up to our opener against our Auld rivals. Their character was under severe scrutiny from this point onwards. They understood that similar performances at the World Cup would only result in an early exit, in which wouldn’t comply with the aims we set as a collective group for the tournament. Results are absolutely paramount in this business; we could only obtain them with much-improved performances.
On paper, Group D was penned as the toughest group from the six drawn and despite being drawn as the strongest seed of the group, our progression was far from guaranteed given the quality of opposition drawn alongside us. Our biggest threat, arguably, was Japan. Under the guidance of head-coach Norio Sasaki, the Japanese had enjoyed a golden era of success in the previous two tournaments having won the competition in 2011, beating the United States on penalties, before losing out to Jill Ellis’s side in Canada. The retirement of Sasaki following their loss to the US in 2016 had brought uncertainty for the future, though.
Asako Takakura was tasked with guiding her country to further glory on the grandest stage, with her managerial expertise largely unknown despite having coached both the U17’s and U20’s prior to undertaking her current vacancy. They came into France as an unknown quantity which is a dangerous quality to have, especially with the artillery they have at their disposal who had plenty of experience of major tournaments, as the squad was largely comprised of veterans rather than fresh, young talent.
Scotland, meanwhile, were set to make their maiden appearance at a World Cup under the guidance of Shelley Kerr. Similarly to the Japanese, they approached the tournament as a relative unknown having made few waves on the international stage. Kerr’s appointment had coincided with a magnificent improvement in form to which caught the attention of the world’s elite, as well as their own nation’s. The Scottish government celebrated their qualification by granting further investment into the side ahead of their trip to France.
Pressure certainly wasn’t to be a factor for the Scots, they approached the tournament with great momentum but very little expectation given the sudden meteoric rise they had enjoyed, which made them a very dangerous threat we had to be cautious of in our opening game. We couldn’t have asked for a much more challenging opener than adding another chapter to the Auld rivalry.
Finally, the group was completed with Argentina, who were making their third appearance at a World Cup following their omission from the finals in both Germany and Canada. Expected to be cannon-fodder for the likes of ourselves and Japan given their far from impressive records in previous tournaments, Argentina, similarly to Scotland, approached France with absolutely no expectations but to a far greater extent than Kerr’s side. Results had improved en route to qualifying for the tournament though, so La Albiceleste went into France with more confidence than they perhaps would have during their campaigns in the US and China, respectively.
An effective response was paramount against Scotland. We were all too aware of the threat they carried ahead of the game and both myself and Shelley Kerr shared a mutual appreciation for each other's work. There were few surprises in the line-up given the poor performance in the previous game. Karen Bardsley started in goal, with Lucy Bronze, captain Steph Houghton, Millie Bright and Alex Greenwood ahead of her. I opted to change the shape ahead of the game to a 4-5-1 to counter-act the attacking quality Scotland brought with them, as Keira Walsh sat deeper in a midfield three alongside Jill Scott and Fran Kirby to bring further solidity to the back-four. Nikita Parris and Beth Mead brought the attacking width, whilst Ellen White began the game up-front.
There were to be no surprises from my point of view from Scotland, as they lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with Arsenal captain Kim Little playing as a number ten behind Erin Cuthbert.
After years of hard-work, I was finally given the opportunity to lead my players out onto the turf of the Allianz Riviera in Nice at a World Cup. An honour in which I never truly believed was possible.
The tone of the game was set from the very opening exchanges of the game. Both sides weren't hanging about and set-out to attack their opponents, with Scotland keen to cause an upset in their debut match at a World Cup finals. Approximately twelve minutes into the game, we attacked down the right with Fran Kirby. As she sought to swing the ball dangerously into the path of Ellen White in the middle, an arm was raised and the ball clattered off the Scotland defender, prompting the referee to pause the game and race over to the monitor pitch side. VAR was in action, just as it had been for the opening two days of the tournament.
After a couple of minutes of careful observation, referee Jana Adámková adjudged Nicola Docherty to have raised her arm into an unnatural position to prevent the cross and therefore gave Nikita Parris the opportunity to strike from twelve yards. She made no mistake, blasting the ball powerfully to the left-corner, sending the players into a frenzy as they sprinted over to celebrate with me. I couldn't remain calm; I was ecstatic. It was the perfect start to a difficult encounter.
We continued to attack and were denied excellently by Lee Alexander on several occasions in the first-half, up until a miscued clearance from the Scotland defence eventually found its way to Ellen White who stroked the ball beautifully into the goal, giving us a two-nil advantage heading into the break.
In the second-half, we were less interested in attacking and this reflected in the volume of chances created in the final forty-five. Scotland were fairly limited as a result of our more conservative nature, as Georgia Stanway, Abbie Greenwood and Karen Carney all came on to preserve our cushion. Unfortunately, Scotland did pull one back eleven minutes from time after a strong run from Little presented her with the opportunity to slide in Claire Emslie who finished expertly. However, we did enough to hold on and take all three points in our opening game of the tournament - I couldn't have been happier, in spite of the imperfections to our game in which I addressed with the players during training in the days following.
Just five days on, we looked to add to our tally and confirm our qualification into the last sixteen. An Argentinian side who had been completely written off heading into the tournament had held Japan in their opening game to a stalemate, thanks in large to the heroics of Vanina Correa. She would once again display her quality in the tournament with an excellent performance against us during a dominant display in which limited our opponents to just two shots over the entirety of the game.
For the game, I elected to make a number of changes beginning with Carly Telford coming in to replace Karen. Abbie McManus replaced Millie Bright in an otherwise unchanged back-four, while Jade Moore and Jodie Taylor replaced Kiera Walsh and Ellen White. My decision was based off of nothing more than simply wanting to test more of my players against an opponent I believe we could still overcome in spite of rotating more than perhaps expected.
A clumsy challenge inside the area presented Nikita with another opportunity from the spot around the half-hour mark, however she was denied brilliantly by Correa who managed to dive to her right and tip the ball onto her post before the ball was cleared behind for a corner. She was called into action once again just before half-time, as Beth this time was denied by the legs of the 35-year-old shot-stopper.
Further efforts were made to break the deadlock, but Correa seemed to have a response for every single attempt on goal until a low-cross had her beaten as Jodie Taylor ran into the box to finish. That would be the difference between the two sides as we went into our final group game knowing our position in the last sixteen of the competition was secured.
Japan would be our final opponents in Group D and with our place secured, it gave us the opportunity to make further changes to the startling lineup. Karen Bardsley was restored to the side, as were Millie Bright, Keira Walsh and Ellen White. Demi Stokes was given her first chance to impress ahead of Alex Greenwood, while Georgia Stanway, Toni Duggan and Rachel Daly were also given their first starts in the competition.
Japan had also booked their place in the last sixteen having beaten Scotland 2-1 in their second group game leaving them on four points. Meanwhile, Scotland and Argentina were left vying for third-place in the group in their final clash with qualification still available via the third-placed ranking spots.
Previous head-to-head meetings against Japan had always resulted in difficult games, however we were largely in control against our opponents as we returned to Nice once again. We weathered the storm early on from Japan before really asserting ourselves into the game, with Karen Bardsley denying Kumi Yokoyama from a well-struck free-kick, before Ellen White added to her tally with a slick finish no less than fourteen minutes into the game.
A flurry of chances throughout the game for the likes of Toni Duggan and Georgia Stanway were well-saved by Ayaka Yamashita in the Japanese goal, as we controlled the tempo brilliantly and looked to be our very best for, arguably, the first time in the tournament. Ellen White would double her tally for the game with another excellent finish inside the box as we concluded the group with maximum points to our name.
Japan finished behind us in second, while Argentina played-out a thrilling 3-3 draw against Scotland. A ninety-fourth minute equaliser from Florencia Bonsegundo broke Scottish hearts to prevent them from finishing third in the group and gaining qualification into the last sixteen. Argentina failed to do enough to obtain a spot in the last sixteen, finishing bottom with two points to their name within the third-placed teams.
Our efforts saw us draw Cameroon in the next round, as the Indomitable Lionesses earned their place through finishing third in Group E behind the Netherlands and Canada, with a ninety-fifth minute winner from striker Ajara Nchout sealing a 2-1 victory over New Zealand to narrowly secure their place in the last sixteen. Despite a below-par tournament so far, Cameroon possessed an abundance of pace in which we had to be cautious in dealing with.
That aside, we were pleased with our own progress. We overcame our concerns heading into the tournament excellently and displayed great confidence throughout our group campaign. The fashion in which we won our group sent out a statement of intent: we weren't here to mess about.
ichano186: Much appreciated, I hope you continue to enjoy reading.
Griffo: You'll have to find out!
Syb: Leave the puns to Justice... in fact, don't.
Seb: It was an incredibly poor result, but with hindsight it could be argued it restored England's focus and enabled them to enjoy a fantastic group campaign.
MJK: That would be very left-field. Similarly to Griffo, continuing reading to find out!
Jack: Genuinely, who cares about Phil Neville?
Justice: ...or maybe not.
Jim: Well, the group stages were an absolute doddle. Hopefully she and the squad can successfully navigate themselves past Cameroon next.