We should have known it wouldn’t be easy, but surely nobody thought it would all be on a knife edge by the end of match 2…
Even as far back as the Group Stages draw, it looked like England would have to battle hard from day one of Euro 2013. Despite a system that allows qualification for two out of three third placed teams, the presence in England’s group of an incredibly dangerous France team left little margin for error. Small margins are now razor thin after an astonishingly disappointing opening pair of games.
England 2 – 3 Spain
England’s opening game saw them take on an improving Spain team and crumble in simply astonishing fashion. Unlike their male counterparts, Spain’s women have a game, committed but ultimately limited side not prone to success in major competitions; England, despite injuries and questionable pre-tournament form, went in to the match with high hopes. 90 minutes later, having twice rescued themselves from a goal deficit, all that was left to reflect on was a shock defeat and a shocking performance.
Spain began the match flying. Even when their fourth minute opener was cancelled out by Eni Aluko’s sharp strike, the expected collapse did not arrive and England were forced to dig astonishingly deep when the Spanish took the lead again in the 84th minute. On another day, Laura Bassett’s 89th minute equaliser might have been a heroic response, yet having dug themselves out, England promptly shot themselves in the foot. There was little apparent danger in Adriana’s speculative left-wing cross, yet perhaps unnerved by the team’s woeful performance, England ‘keeper Karen Bardsley totally misread the flight of the ball, allowing it to slip through her hands, strike her in the face and bobble in.
Russia 1 – 1 England
With criticisms levelled at both team and management, England coach Hope Powell elected to name an unchanged side for what now appeared to be a must-win game. In their own opening match, Russia had been abysmal, hopelessly outplayed by Group favourites France and to many observers this match, against the lowest-ranked side in the tournament, seemed an ideal game to bounce back from the Spanish disaster.
Not so. With England disjointed and lacking a creative spark, particularly when Rachel Yankey limped off midway through the first half, the anticipated response simply failed to arrive. Hassled in possession, slow to move the ball out of defence and lacking creativity in the heart of the midfield, England looked second best to a Russian side who had improved beyond recognition from their own opening encounter.
Despite this, England appeared to have control, yet again found themselves trailing late in the first half when defensive blunders allowed Nelli Korovkina to force the ball in after the English backline failed to clear. With tournament survival suddenly in mortal danger, Powell finally threw off the shackles of caution, first introducing Toni Duggan for her first major championship experience and latterly gambling heavily, introducing a barely half-fit Kelly Smith to try and conjure a touch of magic from England’s talisman.
All looked hopelessly lost until Duggan finally, belatedly equalised deep into stoppage time, breaking Russian hearts and throwing England a lifeline they barely deserved. And while it isn’t much of a lifeline – England must beat France, a team they have never beaten in Powell’s 15 year reign – the fact that they remain to fight another day offers a little hope.
Surely, this time, Powell’s conservatism will be surrendered; with Duggan, Jordan Nobbs and potentially Jess Clarke all pushing for inclusion, England know they will have to go for the jugular. Smith, surely, will not be fit to start yet it would be simply astonishing if Powell elected only to change Rachel Yankey through injury.
With their tournament on a knife-edge and questions over Powell’s initial squad selection becoming even more vocal, England will be looking for a response. Who would have it any other way?
There will be a full round-up of the Group stages once all matches are completed this Thursday.
Image from bbc.co.uk – thanks!