It will not ease the pain of that 2015 semi-final defeat, not when this contest was little more than a dead rubber between two teams that had already qualified for the knock-out stages of this World Cup and were merely here in Nice to decide the group winner. Not when, in truth, the performance could have been much better.
England, nevertheless, enjoyed a revenge of sorts over Japan, registering three wins out of three and topping Group D in the process. Two Ellen White goals - one early, one late - were enough to complete the job. Phil Neville’s side rode their luck at times, but will now face a third-place opponent in Valenciennes on Sunday.
Despite a third successive win, Neville will leave with some concerns. In the usual post-match huddle, there were none of the hugs and words of encouragement which followed Friday’s win over Argentina. The England head coach will hope some of the sloppier parts of his side’s play are not repeated in the latter stages.
Even so, the Lionesses appear to have picked up a habit of winning when not playing particularly well. There is clearly more left in the tank. That can only be a good thing in a tournament where - the United States and hosts France aside - there are few outstanding candidates.
Neville faced something of a catch-22 before kick-off. Avoid defeat and they would be favourites for a last-16 tie against a third-placed team, but United States or France would likely await in a potential semi-final. Losing, on the other hand, would mean either Canada or the Netherlands next up, but it would also put them on the ‘easier’ side of the draw.
But Neville is only mimicking Gareth Southgate on the sartorial front. Unlike the men last year, England went out to win this final group game, regardless of where it may leave them. Granted, Neville made eight changes from Friday, but those introduced demonstrated the depth at his disposal.
Georgia Stanway, making her first World Cup start and in the No 10 role, began particularly well. It was her turn, show of strength and through ball which played White in behind after 11 minutes. Ayaka Yamashita rushed out to meet the loose ball but moved too slow. White lifted it over the goalkeeper’s left shoulder for her second of the tournament.
Up until that point, Japan had made the more purposeful start. England’s commitment to playing out the back was admirable but causing unnecessary issues, with Millie Bright looking particularly uncomfortable. Fortunately, their opponents’ own loose passing meant they could not take advantage and Japan only threatened from range in the first half.
And despite tailing off once ahead, England could quite easily have entered the interval two up. Stanway stung Yamashita’s palms after the breakdown of one corner, while Nikita Parris’ replacement Rachel Daly was nearly rewarded for a lively half when she ghosted around Aya Shameshima, latched onto a long ball out from the back and forced a fingertip save.
Clearly, Stanway and Daly were not the problem. It was instead some of Neville’s regulars that were letting him down. England lacked control in the middle of the park, particularly as the second half wore on, with Jill Scott failing to exert her usual influence on proceedings and Keira Walsh often caught in possession.
At least Steph Houghton could be relied upon. The England skipper’s last ditch challenge on Yuika Sugasawa denied the Japanese substitute a clear-cut opportunity, though Houghton was later powerless to prevent the same opponent beating goalkeeper Karen Bardsley to a near-post flick-on. The ball, mercifully, veered wide.
White’s second followed only a minute later and came most certainly against the run of play. Karen Carney, on for Stanway, found enough room between Japan’s blue shirts to slip through a pass. An instinctive, first-time finish by White beat Yamashita, slipping a few inches inside the near post.
Japan and Sugasawa were not finished. The substitute spurned perhaps her best opportunity of the evening in stoppage time, turning a finish against Bardsley’s foot after slipping through the lines. It was the evening in microcosm: Japan incisive but wasteful, England caught out but ultimately unscathed.
It is three wins from three, a perfect group stage, but you still feel this side has more to give.
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