Impressive? No. Eye-catching? Hardly. Was this gruelling, bruising 90 minutes against opponents intent on spoiling their evening even enjoyable for England? Almost certainly not. Yet all that will be outweighed by the satisfaction of securing back-to-back wins in Group D and qualifying for the knock-out stages of the Women’s World Cup with a game to spare.
Argentina, ranked 37th in the world, had never conceded fewer than six goals to a European team at a World Cup finals before this meeting in Le Havre. Yet Carlos Borrello, their head coach, warned that picking up their first point at the World Cup finals against Japan earlier this week had “changed the dynamic” within the squad.
When goalkeeper Vanina Correa produced a superb save to deny Nikita Parris from the penalty spot, it was clear that this was not going to be the cakewalk that many had predicted. Until Jodie Taylor’s decisive winning goal shortly after the hour mark, it appeared as though it might not even produce the three points that Phil Neville’s side had banked upon.
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This was far from a repeat of the 6-1 win over the same opponents at the 2007 World Cup. Nor was it a statement win from the Lionesses, of the kind that the United States and France have delivered already in this tournament. Though always on top, England’s band of professionals did not expose Argentina for the squad of part-timers and amateurs that they largely are.
Yet the gulf in quality told, just about. Wednesday’s meeting with Japan in Nice, a re-run of the 2015 semi-final, will now decide England’s path through the tournament. Avoid defeat and they will win Group D, facing a third-place team in the last 16. Lose and they are likely to play either Canada or the Netherlands, both ranked in the world’s top eight.
Neville warned his players that Argentina would be aggressive but that aggression unsettled England still. Though dominant, the Lionesses’ play was rushed and loose. Neville could be seen gesticulating furiously, pointing at openings his players had failed to pursue, then scribbling notes while resting on a nearby drinks cooler.
England had only created half-chances when awarded the penalty. Parris’ spot-kick on Sunday was exquisitely-placed, out of the goalkeeper’s reach, directly in the top left-hand corner. She switched this time, aiming bottom-right, but her strike was ever so slightly central. Those few, key inches inside the post allowed Correa to save.
Correa’s stop was superb, and all the more aesthetically pleasing for her pushing the ball against the upright. The 35-year-old was mobbed by her team-mates, but only after Jodie Taylor had rushed a chance to turn in the rebound, skewing wide under Argentine pressure.
The only clear-cut opportunity England created in the opening 45 minutes fell to Beth Mead, whose speed in behind had threatened from the first whistle. Yet when a clever Fran Kirby interception sent her through one-on-one, Mead’s finish left much to be desired: low but not hard, and too close to Correa’s feet.
If you are beginning to sense a theme to the evening’s proceedings, you are right to. Correa was on hand to deny the Lionesses once again at the start of the second half. After the breakdown of a corner, Parris’ drive at goal found a gap between the ranks of amassed blue and white shirts inside the penalty area. Correa, unfortunately, was directly behind it.
It was perhaps significant, then, that the breakthrough only came once Argentina had committed players forward. When a brief foray into enemy territory was cut short, England countered. Mead still had much to do when she collected the ball on the left wing, but a first-time, inch-perfect cross exploited Correa’s questionable positioning. Taylor converted to send England through.