England have a precious first win in this World Cup but that very description is why they did not look like eventual winners of the tournament itself.
That isn’t to say it will remain like this, but Sarina Wiegman has a lot of problems to solve, and a lot of work to do. Haiti at least more than set the tone for the latter. In something that has already developed into a bit of a pattern in these first few games, the supposed minnow deserved more than the 1-0 defeat they suffered through Georgia Stanway’s mercifully reordered penalty.
Haiti’s brilliant young star, Melchie Dumornay, may well end up deserving a series of individual awards. She was by far the player of the match here, running the game. Haiti often gave England a runaround. The entire result ended up depending on Mary Earps standing her ground in a crucial final chance for Haiti.
The caveats to all of this shouldn’t be discounted, of course. The favourites have essentially been treating these group stages as a warm-up, even if they will not publicly say that. It could be seen in Wiegman’s line-up, which still had an element of testing a few positions and the manager not fully revealing her hand. On the other side, and this has played into that pattern, there’s been a will from some of the lower-ranked teams to seize the moment; to put it up the big nations. Haiti more than did that.
This is a team and country that have gone through a tumultuous time, both in the political landscape of the nation and some of the controversies around the federation. It made it all the more impressive that the Haitian side did not look like one just making up the numbers. They instead looked like what they are: a side made up of a fair few players in the French league, not least Dumornay.
They should now fancy their chances of getting through this group. England will have to really sharpen up to ensure they finish first, as expected. This was nothing like what was expected. And if it was a warm-up, it was furnace-hot. Really, it was a proper contest.
The warning came as early as the first minute when England’s rustiness and Haiti’s readiness came together strikingly early. Millie Bright looked very much like she had barely played since March, as she passed an easy ball out of the back straight to Nerilia Mondesir. The danger came about 10 minutes later. Mondesir was again put through only to screw the ball wide, but the true threat here was the sensational Dumornay who put her through with a reverse pass.
The entire Women’s World Cup was about to take note. Everyone could instantly see why Lyon secured her signing in January. Dumornay’s value has shot up. She was the best player on the pitch here, combining an energy and intelligence that ensured something looked like it was going to happen every time she was on the ball.
This also reflected an issue with the game as a whole. England could get on the ball a lot themselves, with up to 71 per cent possession, but Haiti didn’t really allow them to control it. The personnel issues perhaps didn’t help. While Stanway and Keira Walsh attempted to set a pace in the middle, the latter was frequently marked, in a tactical move that looks like it’s going to be a challenge for the entire campaign, however long that is. It played its part in ensuring the midfield had nowhere to really move the ball with the wide players too isolated and Ella Toone regularly manoeuvred out of the game.
England, not for the first time, had little recourse but to go more direct. This admittedly was the source of the essential game-breaking moment. With another ball in the air, Louis Batcheba inexplicably lifted both hands as if reaching for a line-out. Wrong sport, despite the setting, right decision.
A penalty given, before another correct decision followed. Stanway struck her first penalty well but Kerly Theus did superbly to leap and force it wide. The issue was the advantage of having also stepped off her line. A retake was ordered and Stanway displayed supreme composure. The question in a moment of significant tension was whether she would go the same way. She instead went low, drilling the ball into the bottom corner.
England were away, but not by much. If the expectation was that such a goal would finally kill Haiti’s enthusiasm, there wasn’t a bit of it. The back-and-forth over the penalty instead reflected how complicated the game continued to be for England.
At only 1-0, there was always that unsettling feeling that one unfortunate – or, if Dumornay was involved, inspired – moment could change it all. The tension was visible in every break, every rushed clearance.
It was never more acute than in the single most dramatic moment in open play, when Roseline Eloissaint suddenly broke through with less than 10 minutes remaining. She slightly snatched at her shot, though, allowing Earps to make a superb save that could yet be one of the most significant of England’s World Cup.
The break was all the more concerning for Wiegman’s side, since it had come out of a period when Haiti tired. That was inevitable, but you couldn’t quite say that about another England goal.
Wiegman did naturally change things a lot by bringing on Lauren James and Rachel Daly but it didn’t really change the mood of the game. That only came with the final whistle, and it was one of massive relief.
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