The England women’s team could beat Roy Hodgson’s men, the national coach Hope Powell has reckoned, but in their opening group game at these European Championship finals they lost to the Spanish women’s side in a thrilling but ultimately heartbreaking encounter that was decided in the fourth minute of stoppage time by a goal that came off the head of the goalkeeper Karen Bardsley.
“Absolutely, why not?” was Powell’s reply on the children’s TV programme Newsround when asked whether the women’s team could beat the men, though she quickly added: “I think physically the guys are obviously a lot stronger than the women, but if we took it on technical ability we’re as good as the men. We’d give it a good go.”
Powell’s players certainly gave it a good go at the Linkoping Arena, twice coming from behind through first the right winger Eni Aluko then the central defender Laura Bassett to seemingly save the match before the late, late drama.
The defeat leaves England probably needing to win on Monday against Russia, who lost 3-1 to France in Group C’s other game tonight, in order to keep alive their hopes of progressing to the knockout stages.
“It's very disappointing,” admitted Powell. “To go behind and come back, not once but twice, and then lose it in the dying seconds is crushing. But we have to move on.”
On Spain’s winner she added: “I'm not going to single out one player. It is a disappointing night for everybody. There are 11 players on the pitch. I can't single out one when we didn't perform at all. We were very nervous in the first half especially. We just didn't perform. Our touch was off, there were too many unforced errors.
“But give credit to Spain, they probably deserved it on the night. They have been playing well and drawing with Germany in qualifying gave them a lot of confidence. They came into the tournament probably not expecting to progress given their rating but we didn't perform and we got punished.
“The players couldn't say much afterwards, they were very distraught and rightly so. They have just lost a very important game and now we need to dig ourselves out of a hole.
“We have two games left and if we want to progress then we know what we have to do. The players are not silly. They know they didn't perform. There will be a few frank discussions now and we will have to right the wrongs. We will have to bounce back if we want to stay in this tournament.
“It is about character now. I'm confident in the players but equally they have to perform. We will remind them of the unbeaten record they had before we came to Sweden and look to recapture that. They know they have the capabilities to do that.”
As the fourth-highest ranked team in the tournament England were not expected to lose their first game against a Spanish team that were just glad to have made it to Sweden. “To qualify for the Euro finals felt like winning it,” said the coach Ignacio Quereda after his team had scraped through their qualifying play-off against Scotland with a goal in stoppage time of extra time of the second leg.
Between that October meeting with the Scots and arriving at the finals they had played only three friendlies and, having also spent little time in training camps, and appeared to be the worst-prepared of the 12 nations at the tournament.
But they belied that assessment as, desperate for a revenge victory after being knocked out of qualifying by England for both the Euro 2009 finals and the 2011 World Cup, they started at a blistering pace and took a fourth-minute lead.
The midfielder Sonia’s perfectly-weight through ball put Boquete in behind the defence to send in a 15-yard shot that the goalkeeper Bardsley got a hand to but could not keep out.
Powell’s team were visibly shaken but, after another couple of anxious moments, they hit back with a near carbon copy of the goal they had conceded. The midfielder Jill Scott’s pass eluded two defenders to allow Aluko the space to drive forward and shoot just inside the far post.
A second England goal almost followed five minutes later, the midfielder Fara Williams driving in a 20 yard shot that the goalkeeper Ainhoa Tirapu stretched to turn over the bar. But the dangerous Sonia then forced Bardsley into a fine diving save from a well-struck angled shot.
Both sides continued to create chances. A poor 85th-minute clearance by the left back Steph Houghton then led to the second Spanish goal, the central defender Jennifer Hermoso rifling in the loose ball from 12 yards.
A minute from the end of normal time a point seemed to have been salvaged when Bassett curled in a shot from a Rachel Yankey corner. But the game was messily lost when Alexia Putellas challenged Bardsley for an Adriana cross and the ball bounced off the keeper into the net.