England’s pursuit of Women’s World Cup glory is still alive after they won on penalties to come through a tense round-of-16 match against Nigeria to reach the quarter-finals.
The Super Falcons were bidding to become the first African nation to win a knockout game in the tournament’s history and they came close, hitting the woodwork in both halves of normal time.
England were not at their best and looked in trouble when Lauren James was sent off late on for stamping on Michelle Alozie.
But the Lionesses were solid in extra time and took the game to penalties after the game finished goalless at the end of 120 minutes, with Chloe Kelly — the scorer of their winning goal in the European Championship final — scoring the decisive spot-kick.
They will now play Colombia or Jamaica in the quarter-finals in Sydney on Saturday.
Our women’s football reporter Charlotte Harpur and tactics writer Liam Tharme analyse this round-of-16 tie.
It has happened again. After the men famously did it against Colombia in 2018, the Lionesses have followed suit by winning a World Cup penalty shootout.
Georgia Stanway had been perfect from the spot for England — seven from seven, including the winner in the group stage over Haiti (scoring at the second attempt, admittedly, after she missed the initial attempt but was told to retake it). She fired low to the left, the same way she scored in the Finalissima against Brazil, but missed. It was the worst possible start. But Desire Oparanozie, brought on by Nigeria specifically for penalties, missed to the same side of the goal.
Bethany England scored the first of the shootout, showing composure to finish high and central. Alozie, the recipient of the stamp from James, fired over, and then Rachel Daly picked out the top-left corner — she is a goalscorer, after all — to put England two ahead.
Alex Greenwood made it match-point for the Lionesses when she reversed it into the bottom-right corner. And Chloe Kelly, scorer of the decisive penalty in the Finalissima, picked out the top-left corner with aplomb to send England through.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) August 7, 2023
It is the fourth time England have gone to extra time under Wiegman and they have won all four games: 2-1 versus Spain and Germany at Euro 2022, and beating Brazil on penalties at the Finalissima.
James’s frustration boils over
Three goals and three assists in her first three games — two of which were starts — at this World Cup had set James’ performance bar incredibly high. In the first half, she, defensive midfielder Keira Walsh and No 8 Georgia Stanway struggled to find time and space against Nigeria’s player-for-player midfield marking scheme. Halimatu Ayinde stuck to James like glue.
Just 46 touches in 84 minutes compared to 70 and 71 against China and Denmark. Three shots, but none on target, no chances created and just two passes into the final third, compared to 18 and 24 in those previous games. A solitary touch in the opposition box, too.
Sarina Wiegman’s continuation of the 3-4-1-2 system deployed James as a No 10, a position of freedom, but she struggled to get on the ball in the first half. There was one instance where she tried to play on the half-turn after receiving a long ground pass from centre-back Millie Bright and ended up on the floor after being tackled. There simply was no central route through, with England’s back three often playing direct into the front two, Alessia Russo and Lauren Hemp, running the channels.
By the 40th minute she started dropping into the defensive third, still marked. Her shooting opportunities primarily came positioned on the edge of the box when corners were cleared.
Her red card in the 84th minute was a demonstration of the frustration that had developed and was reminiscent of previous high-profile tournament sending-offs for England — 23-year-old David Beckham against Argentina in 1998 and 20-year-old Wayne Rooney against Portugal in 2006. James had received a diagonal out wide on the left, tried to attack Michelle Alozie one-vs-one, and when dispossessed followed through, then stamped on the defender.
For a while it looked like it might be costly but her team-mates ensued her moment of petulance did not lead to England’s exit. It remains to be seen whether James is able to play again at this World Cup.
The England youth international who impressed for Nigeria
Nigeria were excellent throughout and offered a regular scoring threat. It was a former England youth international, Ashleigh Plumptre, who came closest to scoring for them in normal time.
As the ball came out to her around 25 yards out in the 18th minute, the Leicester-born player was first to it ahead of Alessia Russo. The 25-year-old hit a left-footed thunderbolt first time that looked destined to be a goal, but England breathed a sigh of relief as it struck the crossbar. Plumptre had a second effort soon after, only for Earps to claw it around the post.
Despite clocking up 30 appearances across England’s Under 15s, 17s and 23s, Plumptre never broke through into the seniors. She opted to switch allegiance to Nigeria, qualifying through her paternal grandfather, who was born in Nigeria, and she made her debut for the Super Falcons in 2022. Plumptre, a Leicester City fan, has spent the past three years at Leicester in the Women’s Super League but left last season following the expiry of her contract. This was a performance to pique the interest of watching managers
England’s possible route to the final
When the World Cup draw first came out last October, England looked as if they would face co-hosts Australia or Olympic champions Canada in the last 16, before facing Germany in the quarter-finals. Some were even talking about a U.S. vs England final. How times have changed.
Now, after surviving this scare, the draw has really opened up for England. They will play either Colombia, who beat Germany 2-1 in the group stages, or Jamaica, who held Brazil and France to goalless draws, in the quarter-finals. If they win that match on Saturday, they will face France, Morocco, Denmark or Australia in the semi-finals. Going on form, France or Australia seem the most likely opponent. England are ranked above all of those teams. They are also the tournament favourites.
Given the U.S. are out, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands could all lie in wait for England if they reach the final.
(Top photo: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)