England’s women booked their place in the knockout stages of the World Cup with a 1-0 win over Argentina on Friday to follow up on their 2-1 victory previously against Scotland.
The Lionesses faced a physically tough Argentinian outfit who were content to sit back and only threaten on the brief counter or set piece, along with sensational goalkeeping by Vanina Correa. As a result, it took 61 minutes for England to break their opponents down, until a brilliant passage of play saw striker Jodie Taylor (celebrating below with teammate Beth Mead), end a prolonged international goal drought to put England in front.
The goal came courtesy of a sweeping counter-attack move covering the length of the pitch after Argentina uncharacteristically committed several players upfield and lost possession. A strong, surging run by midfielder Jill Scott through midfield saw her find forward Fran Kirby, who deftly touched the ball to the onrushing Beth Mead. Her pace opened up the opportunity to put in an exquisite cross into the penalty area beyond the covering Argentinian defence. This left Taylor to tap the ball in, having timed her run perfectly to avoid being offside. It was Taylor’s first international goal in over a year.
England dominated possession and territory throughout, as Argentina, having achieved a very creditable draw with Japan in their first game, kept to a defensive strategy of parking players behind the ball. This tactic, combined with a willingness to make some fairly physical challenges on England players, may not have been aesthetically pleasing but was effective.
It would be harsh to criticise the South American outfit for this set-up given that during their last World Cup outing, in 2007, they were on the end of 11-0 and 6-1 thrashings by Germany and England respectively. Additionally, the squad are dwarfed in resources and playing personnel compared to England, who have a fully professional top-flight league and superb training facilities at St George’s Park. In fact, after they failed to qualify for the last World Cup, the team were effectively disbanded by the Argentine FA who stopped funding them at all. Funding was reluctantly returned, but the situation was still precarious when the money to pay just £7 a day for training expenses for the women when on international duty was delayed. Only a players’ strike in 2017 saw them gain lockers and a grass pitch to train on. Finally, 4 months ago, only after achieving World Cup qualification, the first professional contracts were handed out in Argentina.
Because of the Argentine defence, England’s best options to make a breakthrough came on the wing or via long balls forward. Nikita Parris, the star player in England’s win over Scotland, frequently outpaced Argentina’s defenders on the right, though all too often took too many touches before attempting to cross or shoot. Arsenal’s Beth Mead on the lefthand side proved a constant attacking threat, not only providing the assist for the winner but also creating other significant opportunities.
It was a diagonal long ball to Mead from Captain Steph Houghton which created England’s best chance in the first half, a penalty. Mead skilfully kept the ball in play and managed to pass to left back Alex Greenwood who was tripped up by defender Ruth Bravo. Up stepped Parris, ready to score her second spotkick of the tournament. Argentine goalkeeper Vanina Correa had other ideas though, and brilliantly denied Parris’s kick to the right, using her hand at full stretch to push the ball onto the goalpost, before Taylor went too high and wide with the rebound.
Having been described early on as ‘a bit shaky’ by the BBC commentary team, Correa, who outside of football works as a cashier, made several outstanding saves during the match, earning England manager Phil Neville’s praise afterwards and following Jamaican goalkeeper Sydney Schneider in showcasing world class goalkeeping in women’s football at this tournament. Correa’s finest save of the game was to deny Mead from the lefthand side of the penalty box with an outstretched foot in the first half, shortly after the penalty save, as the ball was sloppily handed to England in the back third of the pitch. She was also to thwart a rasping shot from Parris in the second half despite being off balance and her vision impaired by defence in front of her.
Given Correa’s heroics, which earned her FIFA’s Man of the Match award despite the loss, and Argentina’s defensive formation, one would be forgiven for viewing England’s 1-0 victory as a stellar result. Certainly, winning the game made it job done for the Lionesses in terms of making the knockout stages and it was an improved performance compared to against Scotland. However, chances were still spurned. Twice, the otherwise bright Jill Scott headed over the bar from promising positions. The pace England played at for the most part was also not something the likes of tournament favourites the USA or hosts France will lose too much sleep over either.
However, the Lionesses have achieved their first objective of qualifying for the last 16 and two wins from two when not playing at their sizzling best provides a foundation. Their last group game against Japan tonight, deciding who will top the group and thus get an easier last 16 opponent, will provide a better indication of England’s prospects to match or go better than their third place finish in 2015.
As for Scotland, who lost 2-1 to Japan, a place in the last 16 is still possible provided they beat Argentina handsomely in their last group game. On the evidence of Argentina’s game against England, where England didn’t manage a shot on goal until the 75th minute, Scotland can be hopeful of keeping a clean sheet, but will need to find a way past the superb Correa.