It was an exorcism of sorts. England had said that they wanted to banish the ghosts of 2015, when Japan devastated them in the World Cup semi-final, and were as good as their word. Their goals revealed the quality of their passing game.
But the question marks remain as they travel to the knock-out stages. It was yet another night which gave some encouragement to the United States, France and Germany, the other members of that quartet of favourites to which England feel they belong. Phil Neville’s side’s performance levels dipped beyond the hour mark, allowing Japan to threaten them for a 20-minute period in which they should have scored. England’s defence listed badly at that time.
The result is what counts, of course. It was a night which did reveal how far this nation’s game has moved on since 2015. Back then, England lacked an elite depth as much as the belief that they could stand toe-to-toe with one of this competition’s outstanding competitors. This time, England’s passing game saw them through with Georgia Stanway and Rachel Daly, given chances to make their mark, both impressive.
Ellen White, who has scored several times against Japan, done her trademark celebration after netting the opening goal
The Lioness forward provided a deft dink over the outrushing Japan goalkeeper to find the corner of the net
England captain Steph Houghton made a vital and well-timed last-ditch sliding challenge to stop Yuika Sugasawa in her tracks
England’s White smashed into the bottom corner from the edge of the penalty box to put the game beyond doubt
The England Women’s team celebrated together as the victory saw them top group with a maximum nine points
Yamashita, Shimizu, Kumagai, Ichise, Samashima, Kobayashi (Miura 62), Nakajima, Sugita, Endo (Takarada 85), Yokoyama (Sugasawa 62), Iwabuchi
Subs not used: Ikeda, Utsugi, Sakaguchi, Minami, Hasegawa, Momiki, Miyagawa, Miyake, Hirao
Bardsley, Bronze, Houghton, Bright, Stokes, Scott, Walsh (Moore 72), Stanway (Carney 74), Daly, White, Duggan (Parris 83)
Subs not used: Telford, Greenwood, Taylor, Kirby, Williamson, McManus, Mead, Staniforth, Earps
Goals: White (14, 84)
With a number of the players integral to the knock-out stages rested, England secured maximum points in a World Cup group stage for the first time since the men accomplished the feat in 1982. It sends them to what should be a benign round of 16 games against one of the competition’s third placed teams.
Georgia Stanway said as she headed into the tournament that her aim was simply to get onto the field of play. Hearing her speak sometimes, you wonder whether the Cumbrian appreciates quite how much talent she has. ‘Not many people leave Barrow’ that’s what’s said. You’ve just got to go out and find yourself,’ she obseved, before leaving for this tournament.
The 20-year-old’s contribution to England breaking the deadlock just before the quarter of an hour mark was a signature statement – a deft half turn and a slide rule ball, delivered under pressure, into Ellen White, whose second goal in as many matches here was coolly despatched.
It wasn’t the young Manchester City player’s only contribution of the early stages. Her swerving shot from the edge of the box brought a panicked parry from Ayaka Yamashita. With Rachel Daly, another of Neville’s eight changes to personnel, displaying strength and rapier pace to bring another save from the goalkeeper, the first half was a powerful indication of what the manager has in depth at this tournament.
It was not the tidiest of openings. England conceded possession more times than Neville would have wanted in an opening ten minutes in where his demands for nine-pass sequences fell on stony ground. The Japanese demonstrated a capacity to capitalise and a better technical level than Scotland or Argentina, England’s previous opponents. It took the best of Karen Bardsley to push away Kumi Yokoyaman’s 25-yard free kick just eight minutes in and a poor touch from the otherwise effective Keira Walsh allows the same player in on goal for a chance she sent wide.
Japan’s goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita dives to her right to make a superb save and deny England from scoring
Aya Sameshima flicks the ball behind for a corner to relieve the danger with England goalscorer White lurking in the box
Yuika Sugasawa stretches out her leg to try and poke it past the England goalkeeper but can’t find the target
England’s Georgia Stanway cleverly rolls her marker Hina Sugita to retain possession and set up an attack for her side
England’s goalkeeper Karen Bardsley gets down well to make a comfortable save during the first half at the Allianz Riviera
Phil Neville scratches his chin as he pulls a pondering expression during England’s group D game against Japan
But it was a materially different kind of challenge to the one presented by the physical Argentinians in which Neville’s players were able to make their presence felt. Walsh, displaying the courage to play the dinked forward passes which Neville looks for, ran the midfield and England’s reached levels they had not previously managed at this tournament. Buoyed by White’s opener, England played with their heads up and forced back a side who had pressed them high in the game’s early stages. Jill Scott sent a 20-yard which forced another sharp save from Yamashita.
Japan were not without threats in possession. Their game has always been predicated around neat, rapid transfer of the ball and this was no different. But there was minimal goal threat and a defensive quality which saw of the threats that materialised. When Mana Iwabhchi threatened down the Japan left, Bronze comfortably dealt with the threat. When Bright – for whom this was not the best of nights – missed the flight of a long ball and substitute Yuka Sugasawa was through on Bardsley, captain Steph Houghton intervened with a tackle of impeccable timing on the edge of the six-yard box.
England’s maintained a goal threat of their own. Bronze received Daly’s dinked ball down England’s right and crossed for Toni Duggan, whose volley brought another save from the goalkeeper.
England midfielder Jill Scott breaks down the right-hand side and tries to hook a cross off balance into the penalty box
England midfielder Stanway mistimes his challenge and goes straight through Japan’s Hina Sugita
Rachel Daly cleverly hooks the ball back to fool Hina Sugita and create some space for a crossing opportunity
England’s Women’s players huddle prior to kick-off of their World Cup group D game against Japan Womens in Nice
But Bardsley had a challenging last half hour: an awkward near-post shot from Sugasawa, who was given too much on the ball. The No 9’s profligacy also contributed to Japan failing to find an equaliser. Mana Iwabuchi’s ball for the forward from the left touchline beat Bright, presenting the forward with a gilt-edged chance.
She slipped while trying to take it. It was a huge relief when England wrapped things up. A slick passing moving between Jill Scott and substitute Karen Carney saw the ball through to White who finished powerfully
White’s ability to finish in this tournament gives England huge encouragement as they go forward to pay in Valencienne, near the Belgian border, though Japan threatened yet again, through Saori Takarada, before the night was done.
Chile, Cameroon, China, New Zealand or Thailand are all possible opponents next, though it is what lies beyond that looks challenging for a side who have set out their stall to go further than Mark Sampson’s did in Canada.