England completed a clean sweep in Group D of the 2019 World Cup in France with what was, at times, a tense 2–0 win against Japan.
Ellen White’s double either side of the break was the deciding factor on an evening in which Japan’s wastefulness in the final third cost them a shot at top spot
Phil Neville made seven changes from the win against Argentina and his side looked decidedly sloppy in their passing on a hot Nice evening but White’s ruthlessness in front of goal saw the Lionesses collect nine points out of nine.
It was the fifth meeting between the two sides and the fourth in as many World Cups. From Shanghai to Augsburg to Edmonton to Nice, it was just the latest chapter in what is becoming a rich footballing history.
England, looking to lay to bed the demons of four years ago, started on the back foot, their so-often-relied-upon passing game not quite up to scratch as Asako Takakura’s side looked to pounce in the opening minutes.
It was a set piece that was nearly England’s undoing, the recalled Karen Bardsley doing superbly to tip Kumi Yokoyama’s free kick from distance onto the bar.
There have been more than a few games in this tournament already which could be filed under “don’t need smaller goals” and this encounter is certainly one that will go in the same filing cabinet.
But among the spectacular saves at either end, Neville’s side required just one moment, one error, to pounce. Georgia Stanway, who impressed on her first World Cup, nicked the ball in midfield, drove forward, and played an inch-perfect pass for White, who promptly did the rest. The celebration followed.
The goal allowed England to gain the upper hand in the counter and it was only due to the excellence of Ayaka Yamashita that they weren’t further ahead at the break.
Yamashita saved well from Jill Scott, Georgia Stanway, and best of all, from Rachel Daly, to keep Japan in the game, while their own half-chances often came only because of England’s generosity in some of their passing from the back.
England struggled to gain momentum in the second half but once more, their opponents were wasteful when opportunities were gifted to them.
Neville looked frustrated at his side’s ability to give the ball away under little pressure but it was his side again who created the best chances to kill the game, Yamashita once more coming up big to deny Toni Duggan.
Not for the first time, England looked like the team starting to tire as the match ticked past the hour mark. The second youngest side in the tournament brought on Yuika Sugasawa and Narumi Miura to liven up their attack against a side who, on average, are the fifth oldest.
But Japan’s decision making and final ball constantly let them down, none more so than when Sugasawa looked to have been slipped through on goal but failed to control the ball and another chance went amiss.
It was perhaps predictable Japan’s stream of misses that would lead to England’s second, and when it did, it was in very similar fashion to their first.
This time it was substitute Karen Carney who slipped in White, who once again finished first time on her left foot to seal England’s top spot in the group.
Neville’s side will now face a third-placed side in Valenciennes on Sunday for a spot in the quarterfinals.
England (4-2-3-1): Karen Bardsley; Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton (c), Millie Bright, Demi Stokes; Keira Walsh (Jade Moore, 72′), Jill Scott; Rachel Daly, Georgia Stanway (Karen Carney, 74′), Toni Duggan (Nikita Parris, 83′); Ellen White
Unused subs: Alex Greenwood, Jodie Taylor, Fran Kirby, Carly Telford, Leah Williamson, Abbie McManus, Mary Earps, Beth Mead, Lucy Staniforth
Japan (4-4-2): Ayaka Yamashita; Risa Shimizu, Saki Kumagai (c), Nana Ichise, Aya Sameshima; Rikako Kobayashi (Narumi Miura, 61′), Emi Nakajima, Hina Sugita, Jun Endo (Saori Takarada, 85′); Kumi Yokoyama (Yuika Sugasawa, 61′), Mana Iwabuchi