Neville's England gamble proves genius, not madness, in deft Japan display
Ellen White’s double ensured a heavily rotated Lionesses side will avoid a more difficult last 16 fixture, with a third-placed side awaiting
Phil Neville’s gamble with his team selection paid off. The England manager’s eight changes raised eyebrows in Nice but his side swept Japan aside 2-0 on Wednesday evening, and did so with relative comfort.
The fact that his team selection will be praised as genius instead of slated as madness, with key players rested for the knockout stage, is what will please Neville most.
Ellen White got the Lionesses off to a great start when she finished clinically after a superb assist from Georgia Stanway early in the first half, and late in the second she wrapped up the three points with Karen Carney slipping her through on goal to repeat the trick.
Neville stressed that his ‘best team’ would start this game, but the Lionesses could count star players Nikita Parris and Beth Mead among their substitutes after sweeping changes were made to the team that beat Argentina.
But talk of him losing the plot quickly turned into talk of a stroke of genius as the likes of Rachel Daly and Stanway, the latter making her World Cup debut at 20 years old, shone at the Allianz Riviera.
Needing only a draw to top Group D, England brought the patience that earned them victory in Le Havre back to the south coast of France and used it to winning effect once again.
Japan, World Cup finalists four years ago who knocked out England in the semi-finals, were happy to let their opponents knock the ball around at the back, and they were happy to oblige, with no rush on the final ball.
England didn’t look like a team with just three survivors from their last outing, with rhythm and fluidity going beyond their passing – which, despite this impressive win, was often wayward.
However, the high-press, led by the tireless White and lively Daly, worked like clockwork and the movement off the ball was too much for Japan to handle.
They couldn’t keep up with White as she latched onto a lovely pass from Stanway and clinically finished, the Manchester City midfielder finding her new team-mate with precision after a tidy turn away from her marker.
Daly made a run just as dangerous in a bid to double that lead and was found by a lofted ball over the top, but she found the terrific Ayaka Yameshita in her way.
The Japan goalkeeper watched from afar as Karen Bardsley tipped Kumi Yokoyama’s free-kick onto the bar early on, before showing the England shot-stopper that anything she can do, she could do better.
Jill Scott and Stanway were both denied by Yameshita before Daly while Toni Duggan, making her first appearance of the tournament following injury, saw her volley brilliantly palmed away after the restart.
Despite all the positives, there were nervy moments for Neville and his team.
Bardsley, the four defenders in front of her and Keira Walsh in front of them were regularly sloppy on the ball, playing themselves into dangerous situations on more than one occasion.
Fortunately for them, Japan were either not clinical enough or England quickly got players back to out-number them – with Steph Houghton making a world-class tackle in the box to thwart the Nadeshiko in one of the more worrying instances.
Against better teams, England will be punished, but the good news is that better teams are further down the line thanks to a clean sweep in the group stages.
Defeat in this fixture would have teed up a last-16 clash with either the Netherlands, the European champions who beat them 3-0 in that tournament on their way to the title, or Canada, who are currently ranked fifth in the world.
Instead, Neville takes his Lionesses to Valenciennes for a much kinder fixture against one of the progressing third-placed teams, be that China, Cameroon, New Zealand, Chile or Thailand.
He’ll have concerns to ponder on the journey north, particularly with a quarter-final against France or the USA possible, but also some selection headaches following the exciting performances of Daly and Stanway this evening.
But there is plenty more to come from this England team, who are the first to win all three of their World Cup group games since the men did it in 1982.
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