Football Features

England scrape through to Women’s World Cup quarter-finals as Lauren James has David Beckham moment

By Harry Edwards

Published: 11:50, 7 August 2023

England scraped through to the quarter-finals of the 2023 Women’s World Cup after their penalty-shootout victory over Nigeria.

After England’s excellent performance against China, fans were purring and some pundits were saying the Lionesses had finally arrived. With some of the tournament’s biggest names going out, such as Germany, Brazil, Canada and the United States, the door was open for England with a favourable run to the final on paper.

Sarina Wiegman made one change from the win over China, keeping the same system and only replacing Katie Zelem with the returning Keira Walsh, but this was a completely different England display. And not in a good way.

England once again struggled, as they did against Haiti and Denmark, and were fortunate not to be behind in the first half with Nigeria dominating in defence and attack. The Super Falcons put a lot of pressure on England early on, not letting the midfield get into the game. Walsh clearly wasn’t 100% fit but even if she was, Nigeria would have still marked her out of the game.

The first real chance of the game fell to Nigeria and former England youth international Ashleigh Plumptre, who rattled the bar with an effort from outside the box and then forced a save from Mary Earps shortly after.

In the group stage, England didn’t face more than seven shots in a single game, but in the first half alone against Nigeria they had faced nine — though only one hit the target). England didn’t really have any chances of their own but they were awarded a penalty when Rachel Daly went down inside the box from a free-kick under contact from Rasheedat Ajibade.

As Georgia Stanway got herself ready to take the spot-kick, a VAR review was ongoing and the penalty was eventually overturned. There was a push but it definitely felt as though Daly had made the most of the contact, so it would have been a soft decision.

At half time, former England striker Ellen White said the Lionesses looked shocked with how Nigeria were playing, and they didn’t really recover in the second half as the Super Falcons hit the bar once more within minutes of the restart.

Daly did force a brilliant save from Chiamaka Nnadozie with a header from a corner but that was about it for clear cut chances for the Lionesses. The attack that worked together so well were marked beautifully and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Halimatu Ayinde is on England’s bus home given how close she followed Lauren James throughout the match.

James, who was fantastic in the win over China with two goals and three assists, was completely taken out of the game, rendered useless by Nigeria’s system and tactics, and it frustrated the 21-year-old a lot. Too much, in fact.

In the closing stages of normal time, James was sent off for a red card that immediately brought comparisons to David Beckham for England in 1998. After a coming together with Michelle Alozie, James got up and stood on the Nigerian defender’s back.

The referee saw it immediately and booked James but it was reviewed by VAR and rightly upgraded to a red card. A moment of stupidity from someone who would have been among the favourites to win the Golden Ball had England gone all the way.

An automatic one-match ban, unlike the three-match for violent conduct in England, there is still the possibility that James’ suspension could be upgraded by FIFA; and there’s precedent for that, with Nigeria’s Deboarh Abiodun given a three-match ban earlier this tournament.

It looked as though Wiegman about to bring James off, but a reshuffle came and England were holding on for the rest of normal time and extra-time, taking it all the way to penalties.

Although Georgia Stanway missed her opening spot-kick, Nigeria sent their first one wide and second shot over the bar, meaning Bethany England’s converted penalty gave the Lionesses a 1-0 lead after two each. It was an advantage they would hold onto with Rachel Daly, Alex Greenwood and Chloe Kelly scoring from the spot to send England through to the quarter-finals.

An undeserving win, but all that matters for England is that they are through, and White believes it could be a good victory to build on.

“I think, we almost had, not an easy route through the Euros and everyone kept talking about that but the World Cup is so different, isn’t it? They’ve had so many different teams they’ve faced in the groups, different formations, different tactics, they haven’t played well tonight,” she said on BBC’s coverage of the game.

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“But I feel like this could potentially move them on to go and win this tournament. Teams that don’t perform well but still win, they show winners.”

“England will go back, analyse the game and hopefully there will be some hard truths in the changing room,” Anita Asante added on BBC Radio 5 Live.

“They need to hold each other accountable, including that moment with Lauren James. England are very lucky to have progressed to the quarter-finals and they definitely need to step up performances if they want to get all the way to a final.”