Given that the River Var runs down one side of Allianz Riviera, it seemed fitting that its namesake should have a telling influence on Nice’s first game of this Women’s World Cup. Nikita Parris and England were the beneficiaries, Scotland and Nicola Doherty the victims of a decision that appeared correct in every sense except a moral one.
Were it not for the introduction of video technology and, more significantly, a recent change of protocol, then Doherty’s accidental handball would have gone unpunished. Scotland may then be celebrating a point and Phil Neville may be revising the great expectations that he has encouraged.
Instead it led to an early penalty which sent England on their way to a 2-1 victory in their opening game in Group D. The impressive Ellen White added their second at the end of the first half, and all three points seemed assured, but Claire Emslie’s consolation made for a tense finish.
Neville will be pleased to have safely negotiated the game that he identified as England’s most difficult of the group stage. Scotland, meanwhile, will lament how close they ultimately came to taking something from this game. Their hopes of qualification were not badly hurt, but a positive result against Japan in Rennes on Friday would help.
For the opening 10 minutes, this was a little bit of Blighty down by the Cote d’Azur; as fast-paced and full-blooded as any meeting between the Auld Enemies. Shelley Kerr and her Scotland players will wonder what might have been if that initial, closely-fought contest had not been swayed by the controversial penalty call.
The decision to penalise Doherty for having her arm brushed by a Fran Kirby cross posed yet more questions of the new regulations. As of nine days ago, handball no longer needs to be deliberate. Unintentional offences can also be punished, particularly when the offending arm makes a player’s body “unnaturally bigger”.
On that specific point, Doherty can have few complaints. Her arm was outstretched. After consulting VAR, referee Jana Adamkova acted to the letter of the law. Yet here was the latest example under these regulations where aiming for the arms or hands of an opponent was the better percentage play than aiming at goal or a team-mate.
Is this the sport that we want to watch? It is, regardless, the one we now have. And for all the debate around the right and wrongs of the decision, Parris showed absolute conviction with the penalty. Lee Alexander, Scotland’s goalkeeper, dived the right way but had little hope of extending her reach towards the top right-hand corner.
Despite the evenly-contested opening stages, England dominated once ahead. Parris and Lucy Bronze, who will be team-mates at the indomitable Olympique Lyonnais next year, were particularly influential down the right wing. Parris at one point tormented an already traumatised Doherty by nutmegging her with a backheel.
Scotland largely disappointed. Kim Little, their imaginative midfield conductor, struggled for influence. The livewrire Erin Cuthbert fed off scraps. And with five minutes remaining of the first half, they fell further behind. When captain Rachel Corsie lost a 50/50 challenge with Fran Kirby, the ball ran through for Ellen White. A first-time finish beat Alexander.
White had, by that stage, already seen one headed goal disallowed for offside after straying marginally beyond the last defender. The ball was in the back of Scotland’s net once more at the start of the second half, finished tidily by Beth Mead, but White was once again penalised for mistiming her run in the build-up.
If there is a criticism of Neville’s side, it is that they rarely take full advantage of dominant spells. Scotland grew in confidence as England failed to effectively close the game out. Lisa Evans certainly showed no fear when, after intercepting Steph Houghton’s misplaced pass, she stormed through the midfield and set up Emslie’s near-post finish.
It would, however, prove to be too little too late. England’s decision to step off the gas paid dividends, as their opponents failed to put up one final surge and Neville’s side controlled the final stages. Victory in Le Havre on Friday, against an Argentina side that is perhaps the weakest in this tournament, will be enough to progress.
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