After a slow start to their World Cup campaign, England’s women marched into the quarter-finals after an impressed performance against a much-fancied Japan side.
Clinical finishes from Arsenal duo Ellen White and Rachel Yankey ensured victory over the Japanese and a place in the last eight against France, which looked in some doubt after an opening day draw against Mexico.
The fact that Hope Powell’s side are now expected to routinely beat sides such as the Mexicans is some measure of how far they’ve come in recent times, and one of the reasons why the England coach was so keen to play down growing expectations after her side dispatched both Sweden and the USA in pre-tournament friendlies.
However, the disappointment in the camp was obvious after a mistake from goalkeeper Karen Bardsley cancelled out Fara Williams’ headed opener in the game against Mexico.
It looked like England were still suffering something of a hangover from that game for long spells of their next fixture against New Zealand.
The Kiwis came into the game having never won a Women’s World Cup fixture, but deservedly went ahead as a sluggish England turned in a disappointing first half showing.
However, facing a shock early elimination from the tournament, Jill Scott shone as the Three Lionesses turned the game around after half-time.
The giant Everton midfielder equalised when she nodded home namesake Alex’s cross, then kept her cool in the area to magnificently set up Jess Clarke for the winner. Lincoln winger Clarke had found herself behind Yankey in the pecking order coming into the tournament, but her finish was confident and assured, and gave England all three points.
With only a fairly unlikely set of results able to knock them out, England entered the game against already-qualified Japan with freedom and confidence, and reaped the rewards mid-way through an entertaining first half.
Karen Carney’s pinpoint through ball was matched in quality by the finishing of Ellen White, who lifted the ball perfectly over the stranded Japanese keeper. She almost followed this up with an even better effort, but this time her overhead kick was saved.
Yankey, having started the game on the bench, clinched the match not long after replacing Clarke. The veteran midfielder latched on to Rachel Unitt’s cross before producing a calm finish that ensured that England topped their group.
So what to make of Powell’s side after the opening test was successfully negogiated?
A major positive – and something that has not always been evident in the England squad – is the strength in depth that the manager now has at her disposal.
Impressive performances from Anita Asante, Sophie Bradley and Eniola Aluko against Japan illustrated this perfectly, as did the rotation between Clarke and Yankey.
The emergence of Bradley as such an assured performer at the back will particularly please Powell, who rested captain Faye White for the final group game. Faye White, as with Williams, came into the tournament having suffered a long-term injury playing WSL football. Both, so far, look untroubled by their return to action.
One slight worry for England will be the form of Kelly Smith. Smith has led the way in recent years and is frequently referred to as one of the world’s best players. In the three matches so far she has failed to live up to the billing, playing a slightly deeper role than she is used to.
However, beside her in midfield has been arguably the star of the show. Jill Scott’s tireless work, tough tackling and effectiveness in both boxes have seen her stand out as one to watch in the latter stages.
A first major tournament goal for Ellen White, great contributions from Carney, Unitt and Alex Scott will have also been noted, as will the confidence displayed by Bardsley after her early error.
In reaching the quarter-finals England have already matched their best World Cup performance. However, the quality they have shown and the momentum they are gaining has shown that this team has the capability to go even further.
Tags: Ellen White, England Women, Hope Powell, Women's Football, Women's World Cup