From this moment forward, it’s do or die for England. Every single match is sudden death and it’s about being able to execute under a different kind of pressure. England demand so much from themselves, they’re always aching to do better, and you could see that in the girls’ muted celebrations after the win against Japan.
They defeated world class opposition, won all of their group stage games, but they’re still be hungry to do better. They played spectacularly in the first half but, just like against Scotland, they took their foot off the gas and were under the cosh but that’s only made them more motivated to raise their standards.
Japan’s intricate passing picked gaps in the defence we hadn’t seen before, they worked pockets of spaces in the final third and the number of chances Yuika Sugasawa was able to steal will have triggered alarm bells. The girls’ reaction after the final whistle was a reflection of that because just winning isn’t enough anymore. The team know they can’t afford to play like that again when it comes to the knockout stages if they are going to go all the way in this World Cup.
Now, after having months to assess and analyse your group stage opponents and bring a gameplan to life, the preparations take a new twist. For 94 minutes, England were set to face Chile in the round of 16 but then Ajara Nchout produced a wonderful finish to send Cameroon through and it showed how any game can come down to the finest of margins in this tournament. It’s crazy that after 270 minutes, the width of a crossbar is the only difference between who stays and who goes home.
From the moment that match ended, the girls will have begun to prepare and the analysts will have their reports and footage ready so the coaching team can construct their strategy. But I think the most important thing for England if they’re going to win this World Cup is being able to hold onto a lead and implement tactics to do that which avoid absorbing lots of pressure.
We’ve got such a great collection of technically gifted players that our best form of defence is attack. For the past two or three years, our focus in training has always been to keep the ball on the deck and stifle the opposition by restricting their possession. Against Cameroon, we need to command the game by using our intelligence and composure rather than panicking into last-ditch tackles or slicing the ball out of play when we’re under pressure.
I was speaking to Chelsea’s manager Emma Hayes after Cameroon’s win and we both agreed that they are going to be a lot tougher test than Chile, but if England can relax into their rhythm and trust in their ability, I know they’ll prove their dominance.
From there onwards, England have hands down been dealt the trickier side of the draw. The USA, France and England were my three favourites to win going into the tournament and only one of them can reach the final now. The USA are such a well-oiled machine, they’ve been stunning so far and are definitely the form team. France were fantastic in the first game but there hasn’t been quite as much sting in their performances since.
You can’t write off the teams on the other side of the draw. The Netherlands are always a threat, especially with Vivianne Miedema up front, and Canada are always dark horses, but I haven’t seen either of them really rip it up so far.
If England are going to win this World Cup, they will have to come through the most difficult trials before even reaching the final, and it all begins today.
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