by Zoë Hayden (Japan/England) and Kirsten Whelan (Scotland/Argentina)
Japan 0-2 England
Both teams advance with opponents yet to be determined, but Japan suffers a bit in this loss. The team style seems to really depend on finesse and being in the right position at the right time to advance the play, whereas England's physicality seemed tailor-made to disrupt their flow.
England got on the board early with a chip ahead to Ellen White by Georgia Stanway. Ayaka Yamashita came out to challenge White breaking in, but it was nothing doing, and White put the ball into the net easily on a play that looked a lot like Havana Solaun's goal for Jamaica yesterday.
Despite the early mistake, Yamashita kept Japan within one, and in the second half, her team started to find their legs. Whereas they had shied away from England's physical challenges in the first half, they kept their feet moving and steadily worked themselves up to longer and longer stretches of sustained pressure. The equalizer was at Yuika Sugasawa's feet on a breakaway, but she slipped and fell in the turf, and soon afterwards, White added her second. Karen Bardsley stopped the best chance of Japan's outing to keep her clean sheet in the 89th minute (again, it was Sugasawa). The Lionesses are undefeated in group play, and Japan takes their first L since 2011 in the group stage (England beat them 2-0 then, too).
What We Learned:
- Blocked passes aren't always exciting, but they get the job done: England's team defense was an absolute clinic of blocks, especially in the first half. Every time a Japanese player settled the ball down and marked her teammate for a pass, a white jersey was in front of it. This methodical disruption is what will keep England alive in the knockout round if they can keep it up.
- You can't always follow the ball: Japan's whole system transformed when they started anticipating the play instead of just following the ball around. They started competing for possession with their bodies and visualizing where they wanted the play to go ahead of time. They showed how dangerous they can be, and if they can play like they did in the second half, they will remain a dangerous opponent in the knockout stages.
- Yuika Sugasawa: Coming on as a sub in the 61st minute, Sugasawa proceeded to just run roughshod all over England's well-placed defense. Her speed and tenacity on the ball were terrifying and she almost singlehandedly tied the game for Japan (if only it weren't for those darn posts).
- Ayaka Yamashita: How many spectacular saves did she make literally out of nowhere? Some of those balls looked like she had no chance. She kept her team in it.
- Ellen White: Hard to argue with being that devastatingly clutch. Her team was on the ropes and she made sealing the deal look easy.
Both teams have made it to the round of 16, but we don't know quite yet who they will draw. The four games tomorrow will suss that all out. The Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, and the United States are all already through, but Brazil, Argentina, China, Cameroon, Nigeria and Chile are bubble teams. The games tomorrow (in a quadruple-header, no less) will determine who gets through even though some groups have already concluded. It's all about those tiebreakers, baby.
Scotland 3-3 Argentina
Welcome to chaos soccer, part two! A lot happened here, in a game with everything on the line. With a win, Argentina would advance. Scotland wasn't guaranteed a Round of 16 berth under any circumstances, but a win would keep their hopes alive. A draw would leave Argentina clinging to slim chances, with Scotland eliminated. And that's what we got, in the most chaotic way imaginable. Argentina came back from a 3-0 deficit to level the match. We had set pieces, we had VAR, we had a premature whistle and a whole lot of fun. In the end, though, it was mostly disappointing, not because of the soccer but because for all the good that happened ― Argentina got its first goal, Scotland its first multi-goal game ― and despite the possibility that either team could've moved on, we probably just watched them play one hell of a desperation game and still both get essentially knocked out.
What We Learned:
- Imagine how great they could be with investment: With two points, there's a good chance Argentina goes home after this. But this is a team that pulled off crafty plays and tight scorelines against very strong opponents, despite needing a last-chance qualifier to make it out of the Americas region and despite dismal support from the well-resourced Argentine federation. A semi-professional league will be starting in Argentina in the coming months, thanks to pressure from the players themselves, but Argentina can and should do so much better by its women's team.
- Estefanía Banini: Argentina's captain may seem an easy choice, or a bizarre one, considering that she was subbed out when Scotland was leading 2-0. But for the time she was on the pitch, she was solid, creative, and made more happen than anyone around her.
- Milagros Menéndez: Perhaps another obvious selection, but after replacing Banini, Menéndez both set up and scored Argentina's first goal of the tournament, which proved to be a turning point in the match. A willingness to follow through on the play sometimes really is all it takes.
- Erin Cuthbert: The 20-year-old striker was constantly involved in the play and created plenty of chances before she finally scored a goal of her own. Fun fact: according to a BBC Sport profile, the photo Cuthbert celebrated her goal with was of herself as a child and was given to her by her father before the tournament began, with the message "Do it for this wee girl who had a dream and practised and practised until it came true" written on the back ― an endearingly Scottish adaptation of the famous Mia Hamm quote.
- Time is an illusion and stoppage time, even more so. A VAR review took up the last few minutes of regular time in this one, as well as nearly all of the minimum four minutes that were supposed to be added on. That's to say that more than four minutes should've ultimately been played out to make up for the delay, and another few to make up for the fact that stoppage time wasn't actually played out, since the seconds that ticked by after the 90th minute were in fact simply more stoppage. Instead, the referee decided to end the game just a minute after the final restart, leaving both teams protesting. Scotland absolutely needed a win to advance, and while Argentina has a slight chance of advancing from a draw, a win would've secured them a berth in the Round of 16. In all honesty, our referee probably could've earned a shout-out in the standout performances section, because she sure did stand out.
We don't know! Scotland is officially eliminated from its debut World Cup, while Argentina maintains a narrow chance of moving on, depending how groups E and F shake out. They'd need draws from both Cameroon-New Zealand and Thailand-Chile in order to advance.