There was a moment on the Cote d’Azur on Sunday when it seemed a ghost of horrors past would reach out and give England a thunderclap shock. It was here the men’s team ignominiously crashed out of the European Championships to Iceland and, suddenly, it looked as if Scotland could derail the women’s World Cup bid.
But Phil Neville’s players, showing a composure not evident three years ago, kept their heads level and their opponents at bay to put one foot into the knockout stages.
Deservedly leading 2-0 at half-time through a penalty from Nikita Parris, awarded after the intervention of VAR, and a neatly taken goal by Ellen White, England were cruising to victory. But in high temperatures fatigue set in and when Claire Emslie struck back with eight minutes left Scottish hopes were rampant. They had, after all, stayed in the same hotel as Iceland.
England, however, eschewed the temptation to dig in and defend their lead but instead took the game to Scotland, keeping possession, playing out time. “I think it was the best things for us,” said Neville. “It jolted us into playing again. It keeps us on our toes.”
England now face Argentina in Le Havre on Friday and will expect to win. Millie Bright is a doubt after injuring her shoulder but Fran Kirby (calf) and Beth Mead (cramp) should be fit. Scotland play 2015 finalists Japan the same day in Rennes. Argentina and Japan meet on Monday.
England vs Scotland is football’s oldest international fixture with these nations first meeting in a men’s match in 1872 and an unofficial women’s match nine years later. Yet surprisingly this was the first time either gender has met at a World Cup finals.
Two of Neville’s trickiest selection decisions were made for him. With Demi Stokes and Toni Duggan ruled out with injury – both are expected to be fit for Friday – Alex Greenwood and Beth Mead paired up on the left flank. In the centre Neville omitted Euro 2016 Golden Boot winner Jodie Taylor, opting for Manchester City’s new signing Ellen White. For the first time in 20 matches under his command he fielded an unchanged back four-and-goalkeeper combination. Shelley Kerr opted to match England’s 4-2-3-1 deploying Kim Little behind Erin Cuthbert with Jane Ross on the bench.
The Riviera Stadium is sited on the bank of the River Var so it was almost inevitable that the Video Assistant Referee would some into play and, sure enough, 12 minutes into the match the Czech ref stopped play and ran to the touchline. Her earpiece had alerted her to the fact that the VAR team had spotted a handball. A quick look at the video revealed Nicola Docherty deflecting Fran Kirby’s cross with an outstretched arm. She was close enough that in the old days (that is, last year) it would probably not have been given and Kerr thought it was “harsh”, but under the new interpretation it was a stonewall spot kick. Parris had to wait a couple of minutes to take the kick but confidently dispatched the penalty and England were on their way.
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With Scotland struggling to keep possession long enough to get out of their half England were dominant. The right-flank pair of Parris and Lucy Bronze gave Docherty a chasing. In midfield Kirby dropped deep and Jill Scott pushed on, both finding space between the lines as Keira Walsh directed play behind them.
England given a scare
Gratifyingly for Neville, England did not just monopolise the ball but created good chances. From a White lay-back Kirby rolled a shot just wide then Lee Alexander saved with her knees as White met a Lucy Bronze cross. The keeper made another good save from Alex Greenwood after Scott and Kirby had linked well, then an easier one as White shot weakly after Scott robbed Caroline Weir.
White also had a neat header disallowed for offside but would not be denied. Five minutes from the break Kirby won a 50-50 with Rachel Corsie and White, who also scored in the 2011 finals, seized onto the loose ball to tuck away her 29th international goal. White had looked very sharp and was, with Scott, England’s best player.
It was not until Erin Cuthbert rolled a shot wide just before the break that Scotland threatened but they were brighter in the second period with Kim Little exerting an increasing influence. Half chances began to be fashioned though the final ball was sometimes lacking. Emslie drove a shot at Karen Bardsley who also denied Lisa Evans as Scotland sought a way back into the game.
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At the other end England always looked threatening, but could not put the game to bed, a familiar failing. This time it was in part due to the excellent Alexander whose handling was impeccable and who made a particularly fine save from White in the 70th minute after Scott nodded down a cross. Then Houghton, trying to pass out from the back, gave the ball to Evans who drove forward and found Emslie, who scored and briefly created a scare. That’s all it was, thankfully for the Lionesses.