France 3 – 0 England
Faced by a French team demonstrating all the verve and panache associated with domestic champions Lyon, the continent’s dominant club side of the last five years, an England team who had gone into Euro 2013 with genuine hopes of securing a first trophy under Head Coach Hope Powell were brought crashing down to earth. Sobered, humbled and in a very real sense humiliated, the real damage had been done in poor performances against relative minnows in Spain and Russia; this evening’s defeat was nothing more than a confirmation of the gap that has grown between England and the continent’s elite in the four years since they came within a single game of becoming European Champions.
History and latter reflection may yet paint England’s exit in a different light, yet the truth will remain that exit in the group stages had been considered unthinkable; its reality nothing more than the humiliation of a team from whom great things had been expected.
France, in isolation, were remarkable; England, abysmal. What seemed initially to be a nervous start from England swiftly revealed itself to be the pattern of the game. Having moved from their usual 4-2-3-1 to a flat 4-4-2, England were simply unarmed to cope with a French team whose 6 changes belied an ability to build devastating moves through swift movement between the lines of attack and midfield. With Eugene Le Sommer, Elodie Thomis and Louisa Necib devastating in possession, England simply had no answers and no fluidity in their own game. That Le Sommer’s 9th minute goal was the only thing separating the two teams at half time told only a fraction of the story, with France having had enough opportunities to be at least 4 up by the break.
Having gambled in her starting lineup, Powell rolled the dice again at half time, replacing Anita Asante with Jill Scott. And, for a short period of time, it looked as if the reinvention might work. Suddenly England had sustained possession in the French half with Toni Duggan and Ellen White finally receiving the service denied them throughout the first half. Sadly, the renaissance was to prove all too short-lived. With England desperate to score, Powell threw on a clearly half-fit Kelly Smith; almost instantly, France struck twice, first through the outstanding Necib, then minutes later via a towering header from Wendie Renard. 3-0 and, bar the shouting, England’s European Championships were done.
And so, immediately, begins the post-mortem and questions over Hope Powell’s future as England Coach. It is only right, at this point, that these questions are asked. Powell, by her nature a conservative and trusting figure, has always had favourites within the England setup, but to enter the tournament with so many injured and half-fit players while ignoring the claims of individuals such as FAWSL top scorer Natasha Dowie left her open to criticism even before England’s tournament came off the rails. Even young players who made the squad, namely Jess Clarke, Toni Duggan and Jordan Nobbs were largely (and in Nobbs’ case, entirely) ignored even as the signs stacked up that this was a team lacking in exuberance and creativity.
In the tournament’s opening match, Powell took justified criticism for taking too long to adapt and make changes; tonight, she perhaps took changes too far, crowbarring players into a formation that suited neither the opposition nor the personnel.
While the spotlight rests on the coach, though, senior players must also take responsibility. The likes of Fara Williams, Anita Asante, Alex Scott and Casey Stoney simply made too many errors, particularly in the erratic performances against Spain and Russia that placed so much primacy on an already difficult France game. For some, including record goalscorer Kelly Smith, this may well be the last hurrah: a last, crushing defeat in the international arena.
At least, this time, there can be no penalty heartbreak; no cruel twist of fate in the knockout stages. This time there is only the team themselves and a recognition that collective efforts were simply not good enough. Tomorrow will bring recriminations. Tonight only cold, hard disappointment.
Image from dailymail.co.uk – Thanks