Brisbane was the stage for an edgy night as England narrowly avoided elimination against Nigeria. It took a nerve-wracking penalty shoot-out for the Lionesses, reduced to ten after Lauren James saw red, to eventually see off a spirited Nigeria and reach the World Cup quarter-finals.
“I don’t know what my heart rate is, I just know I’m 10 years older,” a relieved Sarina Wiegman said after an intense 120 minutes of football.
“I was not worried. It was a really intense game. Nigeria have done really well in the group stages so we were not underestimating them at all and they showed what a good team they were.”
England were favourites going into the encounter but the Super Falcons had already proved this tournament that they are much better than their 40th world ranking suggests. They had progressed through the “group of death” with an eye-catching win over Australia, and impressive draw with Canada and the Republic of Ireland. Randy Waldrum made just one change from the latter, with Ifeoma Onumonu coming in for the prolific Asisat Oshoala who is still returning to full fitness.
The Lionesses, meanwhile, were handed a huge boost before kick off with the return to fitness of Keira Walsh. A key element of their midfield, the Barcelona star had come through a worrying knee injury picked up in the game against Denmark. She was the one change to the starting line-up, replacing Katie Zelem as England adopted the same 3-4-1-2 formation that had proved so successful against China.
The game took a while to get going as both sides found their feet in front of over 49,000 at the Suncorp Stadium. It was soon evident, however, that the Lionesses had a battle on the hands. Nigeria’s energy, enthusiasm and strength in the press saw them dominate in the middle, allowing Walsh and Lauren James little space to operate in. Halimatu Ayinde had clearly been given the task of marking James out of the game and essentially followed her everywhere.
The pace of Nigeria’s counter-attack was a key weapon and the Lionesses had to deal with several potent deliveries into the box. Mary Earps was slightly hesitant in punching a cross behind while Millie Bright got in the way of a free header from Michelle Alozie. Their best chance of the half, however, fell to Ashleigh Plumptre. The former Leicester City star crashed a shot off the woodwork before forcing Earps into a solid save with the follow-up. Rasheedat Ajibade and Christy Ucheibe also saw efforts bravely blocked by both Bright and Jess Carter consecutively.
England were presented with some chances down the other end, denied by the alertness of Chiamaka Nnadozie in goal. A rare lapse in concentration saw Oluwatosin Demehin send the ball straight into the path of Alessia Russo. The striker bore down on goal but the Nigerian keeper rushed out and closed the space. Volleys for James came and went while a penalty, initially awarded for a push on Rachel Daly, was overturned after Melissa Borjas consulted with VAR.
Nigeria continued where they left off after the break as the influential Uchenna Kanu agonisingly hit the bar with well-reached header. Apart from that, despite their pressure, the Super Falcons could not find the end product. It was not long before Waldrum introduced his star Oshoala to try and find the breakthrough.
The Lionesses also created down the other end, lacking a clinical finish themselves. Daly headed a corner wide before seeing her attempt off another delivery kept out superbly by Nnadozie.
Disaster struck in the 87th minute when England were reduced to ten. James has caught the eye this tournament for her stellar performances but a moment of petulance left her World Cup at risk and her team’s chances on the brink. Caught in a tangle with Alozie, the 21-year-old wanted a free kick that never came. In her frustration, she stood on the Nigerian as she picked herself off the ground and gave the referee little choice but to send her to the changing rooms.
“I think in a split second, she just lost her emotions,” Wiegman said. “Of course, she doesn’t want to hurt anyone; she’s the sweetest person I know. Things happen like that…it’s a huge lesson to learn but of course it’s not something she’s done on purpose.”
The Lionesses actually adjusted well to the player deficit, with Chloe Kelly and Bethany England brought on and a shift to four at the back. In a tense extra time period in which the game ebbed and flowed, they probably had the best chance to win it when Bright was a touch to late to a free kick after making an unchecked run to the back post.
Penalties were inevitable and it was here that England’s experience showed. Confidence radiated through the side from Earps to all the players lining up. They cheered every conversion, every miss and remained calm even when Georgia Stanway missed with their opening kick. When Kelly walked up, carrying the weight of the potential winner on her shoulders, there was little doubt. A cool hop, skip and a jump – her trademark – and a buried shot saw England wheel away in delight as the Super Falcons dropped to the ground. It was enough, just enough, to ensure the Lionesses’ journey continued.
England (3-4-1-2): Mary Earps; Jess Carter, Millie Bright, Alex Greenwood; Lucy Bronze, Georgia Stanway, Keira Walsh, Rachel Daly; Lauren James; Alessia Russo, Lauren Hemp
Subs: Niamh Charles, Ella Toone, Jordan Nobbs, Hannah Hampton, Lotte Wubben-Moy, Esme Morgan, Laura Coombs, Chloe Kelly, Bethany England, Katie Zelem, Ellie Roebuck, Katie Robinson
Nigeria (4-2-3-1): Chiamaka Nnadozie; Michelle Alozie, Osinachi Ohale, Oluwatosin Demenhin, Ashleigh Plumptre; Christy Ucheibe, Halimatu Ayinde; Uchenna Kanu, Toni Payne, Rasheedat Ajibade; Ifeoma Onumonu
Subs: Tochuckwu Oluehi, Glory Ogbonna, Onome Ebi, Asisat Oshoala, Desire Oparanozie, Gift Monday, Francisca Ordega, Onyi Echegini, Rofiat Imuran, Esther Okoronkwo, Yewande Balogun
Referee: Melissa Borjas