England qualify for 2019 Women's World Cup after win over Wales
Whether it was helped by the waistcoat Phil Neville was wearing or down to something he said at the interval, the manager eventually got the reaction he wanted from his England players as they safely negotiated a potentially awkward evening in Newport to book their place at next summer’s Women’s World Cup finals in France.
Toni Duggan, Jill Scott and Nikita Parris scored the second-half goals that underlined the gulf in class between the two nations on a night when Wales, whose team is made up predominantly of part-time players, saw their hopes of qualifying for the World Cup at the expense of England shattered.
Dogged, resilient and combative until half-time, Wales were blown away in 12 second-half minutes as England started to play with much more conviction and go through the gears. All three goals arrived in that exhilarating spell as the game threatened to turn into an exercise in damage-limitation for Wales and in particular their goalkeeper, Laura O’Sullivan, who endured a difficult second half.
Wales, to their credit, kept going and can take huge satisfaction from a campaign that ended with them playing in front of a record crowd of 5,000 and also with a glimmer of hope that they could still seize one of the four World Cup play-off berths if results go their way in the remaining qualifiers.
England were just too good for them here, though, especially after the interval, when they moved the ball much more quickly and piled on the pressure. Duggan’s goal had been coming in that respect and it was no real surprise when England quickly added a second through Scott’s looping header. A mistake by O’Sullivan at her near post led to Parris nodding in England’s third.
Neville sounded pleased rather than relieved with the outcome, almost as if he never doubted that his players would deliver if they stuck to their beliefs. “I wanted to see my players play to their ability and I think you saw that in the second half,” the England manager said. “You saw them play like one of the best teams in the world, with control, with one- and two-touch passing, with a bit of flair and enjoyment, and these are the characteristics that we want to take forward.”
It says everything about how this game was viewed in Wales that the tickets sold out within 24 hours of going on sale. Rodney Parade, the home of Newport County, was packed to the rafters and the Wales manager, Jayne Ludlow, had not left a stone unturned in terms of trying to exploit every advantage possible. The dimensions of the pitch were reduced to make the playing surface as small as possible and Wales turned down England’s request to water the pitch beforehand.
Yet the biggest thing in Wales’s favour in the opening stages was a poor offside decision. Parris reacted quickest to stab home after Alex Greenwood’s deflected shot hit the crossbar but England’s celebrations were cut short because of the assistant referee’s flag. Television replays confirmed that Parris had been clearly onside.
Although Greenwood impressed with her desire to get forward on the left and Jordan Nobbs moved the ball intelligently at the base of the England midfield, the visitors lost their way a little after that early chance. England were dominating possession but their passing was slow and prosaic, playing into the hands of a Wales team that sat deep and defended in numbers.
Asked what he said to his players at the interval to get such a positive response in the second half, Neville said: “Relax. If we’re going to get affected by what’s going on around us at Rodney Parade, what chance have we got playing in a World Cup final in Lyon? So I wanted them to relax and stick to the game plan – that was the biggest message all week.”
The breakthrough arrived shortly before the hour mark. O’Sullivan came off her line to try to deal with a cross from Nobbs, Fran Kirby shifted the loose ball on to Duggan and the winger expertly opened up her body to steer in a right-footed shot from inside the area. Wales were still reeling from that setback when they conceded a second. Lucy Bronze lofted the ball into the area and Scott, totally unmarked, sent a looping header over the stranded O’Sullivan.
Wales knew the game was in effect over and so did the home supporters, who had got behind their team so fervently in the opening 45 minutes. England, however, were not finished. O’Sullivan was unable to deal with Greenwood’s free-kick and the ball popped up for Jodie Taylor to set up Parris, who nodded home the third.