England stymies Japan with revamped lineup
AUGSBURG, Germany -- It had become a tired story. England didn't want to have to answer questions, externally and internally, as to why it was playing such tight, anxious and, frankly, joyless soccer in the FIFA Women's World Cup.
Just for once, it wanted to show its authentic side in a game, playing with poise, happiness and finesse.
The day finally arrived, Tuesday in Augsburg, for England to play its game.
England put it all together, beating Japan 2-0 to win Group B. It's a historic win, marking the first time England has won its group in the World Cup. The English advance to Saturday's quarterfinal in Leverkusen and will face Group A runner-up France.
Noticeably relieved England coach Hope Powell relished the shutout.
"It was a tough game, as each of them has been, but we did have a game plan that the girls implemented, and it paid off," Powell said. "We managed to stop them somewhat, fortunately.
"We're staying, not going home. It's fantastic."
The smiling Powell was relaxed enough to take note that her mother was calling her on her silenced cell during the news conference. But this wasn't time, yet, to take congratulatory phone calls from Mom.
Powell made some sweeping changes for the game, putting in Sophie Bradley, Anita Asante, Karen Carney and Jessica Clarke for normal starters Eniola Aluko, Faye White, Fara Williams and Rachel Yankey.
She subbed in Yankey and Aluko in the second half, with the Yankey move proving quite important.
It was a big vote of confidence for some key young reserves.
"They worked their socks off, [Japan] didn't have a great deal of possession," Powell said. "The plan was to deny them space, but everybody needed to do their job. And I have to applaud that. We sometimes have to work scruffy. It worked, it paid off. They ran their legs off; there will be some tired legs tonight."
Powell's call paid quick dividends, as England looked confident and aggressive, putting the Japanese on their heels. Japan wasn't able to develop deep runs, instead settling frequently and uncharacteristically for long balls.
"We know how well Japan moves the ball, we had to stay tight," said English midfielder Jill Scott, who was named player of the match. "We had to hit them on the break. It was a team performance that needed all of us. We had wanted to relax today, as we did have a bit of pressure on us. We wanted to get out of group play, but to be the top of the group -- even better.''
England, which came into the game at 1-0-1 with four points, needed to defeat Japan to win Group B and guarantee advancing. The Japanese entered the game leading the group 2-0-0 with six points but now settle for a quarterfinal date with Group A winner Germany in Wolfsburg.
It's still an accomplishment, as it is Japan's first appearance in the quarterfinals since 1995. But the Japanese also continue their World Cup streak of never having beaten a European team in nine tries, with a record of 0-8-1. Japan's only point? Against England, from a 2-all draw in the group round of the 2007 World Cup.
Japan coach Norio Sasaki said his team was clearly outmatched and outhustled by the English. The Japanese were the best passing team in the World Cup until England stifled them.
"[I told them to] really pull yourself together, at halftime, be prepared to fight to the death and hope to go to the final match," Sasaki said, through a translator. "But the opponent had all the luck, I suppose. We take this experience as a positive lesson for the future. We are going to go for the final with all of our effort."
The English, for the first time in this World Cup, scored first. It was a spectacular goal, befitting England's improved mindset. Forward Carney aggressively attacked at midfield, sending in a perfect pass to the top of the box. White met the ball, bought space between two charging Japanese defenders and launched a perfect lob shot over them.
White's ball eluded the outstretched goalie, Ayumi Kaihori, just passing over her fingertips before hitting the back of the net at the 15-minute mark.
It was pretty and creative and the 1-0 lead allowed England to relax even more and enjoy the moment.
That dramatic flair continued in the second half. The Japanese were attacking more, as urged by Sasaki, but the English had an answer.
Yankey flicked home a left-footed shot in the 65th minute over Kaihori to seal the win.