BRISBANE, Australia — If style is in short supply, make sure you have plenty of substance to compensate. That was the message hammered home by Women’s World Cup favourites England as they overcame adversity and a tenacious Nigeria to reach the quarterfinals in Australia and New Zealand.
Chloe Kelly‘s decisive spot kick in a 4-2 penalty shootout win, after the round-of-16 tie had ended goalless and with England’s Lauren James sent off, sent the European champions into the last eight. That progress justified their billing as favourites to win the tournament (+225, according to Caesars Sportbook) in the wake of the back-to-back champions, the United States, exiting in another dramatic shootout against Sweden 24 hours earlier.
Carrying the favourites tag in a World Cup can be as much of a burden as a source of motivation, though. The USWNT did little to warrant that status during their woeful campaign. After some impressive performances so far, it could be argued that Spain (+330), Japan (+475) co-hosts Australia (+750) or Sweden (+900) are more worthy of the “most likely to” label than England, whose only eye-catching display so far was the 6-1 group-stage victory against Asian champions China.
But while coach Sarina Wiegman’s team were outplayed by Nigeria for long periods, and then had to deal with the 87th-minute red card for James following a senseless stamp on Michelle Alozie, the Lionesses did what winners tend to do — they reorganised, dug deep and fed off the negativity of losing one of their best players to take the game into extra time and penalties before emerging victorious from that test of nerve.
“We didn’t expect it to be easy,” Wiegman said. “I give a lot of credit to Nigeria. I don’t think I have ever been in such an intense game. It was very intense and competitive.”
Rather than rely on the star qualities of James, who was perhaps overhyped her two goals and three assists against China, England made it through because of the desire of Rachel Daly, the defensive solidity of Alex Greenwood and Keira Walsh‘s majestic 119-minute performance in midfield after returning to the team following a knee injury. It would have been 120 minutes, but after attempting to see the game out until the very end, Walsh eventually succumbed to the aftereffects of her recent layoff with seconds left on the clock. But she had done her bit.
Daly was the standout performer, though. The Aston Villa player, who topped the Women’s Super League scoring charts last season after converting from defender to striker, was once again deployed as a wing-back by Wiegman and she played as though she harbours a sense of injustice that she is not spearheading the attack. There is a real fire within Daly, but it works in her favour and makes her such an important player for this England team. While she is able to harness it in a positive way, James has still to learn that crucial element and her red card, which came after VAR correctly called on referee Melissa Borjas to review her initial decision of a booking, could have cost England their World Cup hopes.
“She’s young,” Wiegman said of the 21-year-old Chelsea player. “This is just a split second, and she doesn’t want to harm anyone. She will absolutely learn from it.”
It was like history repeating itself for England — both David Beckham and Wayne Rooney were famously sent off for violent conduct in World Cup games for the men’s team prior to losing on penalties — but Wiegman’s Lionesses were able to avoid the same fate. Had they shown more of the flair and dominance that usually comes with favourites, England could have had the game won long before James put their place in jeopardy. But her dismissal ultimately enabled England to show just why they are regarded as the team most likely to emerge as world champions on Aug 20.
The U.S. are out, as are Germany, so that means that the teams sitting No. 1 and No. 2 in the FIFA World Ranking are no longer blocking England’s path to glory. It is also a reality that England are in the weaker half of the draw, with Japan, Sweden, Spain and Netherlands locked into the other side of the bracket in the New Zealand-based route to the final. Colombia or Jamaica will England’s quarterfinal opponents on Saturday — a tie they will once again be expected to win — while Australia could be a tough nut to crack in the semifinal if the Matildas make it that far.
But once the euphoria of the win against Nigeria subsides, Wiegman and her players will know that they have to find another gear if they are win England’s first Women’s World Cup. They need more creativity in midfield and Wiegman might have to consider replacing the ineffective forward Alessia Russo with Daly to give England more of a goal threat.
But there are no question marks over the resolve of this England team. Their substance is rock solid, so if they can add the style, they can go all the way.