ngland are alive at this World Cup, but the Lionesses were scared like never before.
Sarina Wiegman warned in the build-up to this last-16 clash that Nigeria were no pushovers, though no one expected a battle like this. England are through to the quarter-finals, but only after 120 minutes of goalless football and a penalty shootout.
Before that, it was a night of frustration for England, summed up by Lauren James being sent off for a stamp on Nigeria defender Michelle Alozie three minutes before the end of normal time. A young England star, wearing the No7 shirt, sent off at World Cup for a moment of madness. Sound familiar?
A week ago, James and England could do no wrong at this World Cup as they thrashed China to reach the last 16. Nigeria, however, found a way to tame the Lionesses. This has been the tournament of the underdog and the African side showed why.
They were more than a match for the European champions and created the best chances over the course of 120 minutes. England, by contrast, were toothless and nowhere near the level they can play at. Within the first 15 minutes, it was made clear to England that Nigeria were up for a battle.
Even without Barcelona forward Asisat Oshoala in the starting XI, the Super Falcons looked threatening going forward. Alozie had a header cleared off the line by Alessia Russo and Ashleigh Plumptre smacked the crossbar, with goalkeeper Mary Earps then making a fine save to deny her moments later.
England, even with Keira Walsh back in the midfield after miraculously recovering from a knee injury picked up 10 days ago, could not get going. Walsh was being bypassed as the Lionesses went long, trying to set Lauren Hemp and Russo free down the channels.
It was not until midway through the first half that they had finally had a shot. A poor clearance landed at Russo’s feet and Chiamaka Nnadozie saved well to deny her. Minutes later, Nnadozie was called into action again, as she kept out a volley from Rachel Daly after a corner fell to the wing-back.
England finally had some momentum and they thought they had penalty just after the half-hour mark. A free-kick came in and Daly went down after a push from Rasheedat Ajibade. It looked soft, but not enough for VAR to intervene. It certainly was not a clear and obvious foul.
Referee Melissa Borjas, however, was sent to the pitch-side monitor and reversed her decision for a spot-kick, much to the delight of Nigeria fans. The crowd in Brisbane had been flat at the start, but their support was now being thrown behind the underdogs.
Wiegman’s frustration on the bench was clear to see and the 3-4-1-2 formation that had worked so well against China last week, when England won 6-1, was not clicking. There were no changes at half-time, though, and the hope for the Lionesses was that Nigeria would tire.
Their intensity had made this an exceptionally physical match, but sustaining that for 90 minutes felt out of the question. Nigeria had just 40 per cent possession in the first-half, albeit mustering nine shots. But the second half began like the first and, within minutes, Nigeria forward Uchenna Kanu hit the top of the crossbar with a header.
Kanu was causing problems out right and she skipped past Alex Greenwood, fizzing in a low cross that somehow missed everyone. England’s chances were proving few and far between. Russo headed wide from a Greenwood free-kick, Daly mistimed an effort from a cross and Hemp had a shot blocked.
The game was an arm-wrestle and it was drifting Nigeria’s way. Kanu squandered another good chance from a corner, heading wide when she really had to hit the target. Daly had an even better opportunity, and England’s best of the match, with 15 minutes to go. A corner came in and she was unmarked, but her header was straight at Nnadozie. Even with that chance, it felt like Wiegman needed to make changes.
The Lionesses’s frustration was evident, and it boiled over as the game ticked into the final minutes of normal time. James, who had been shackled all night, tangled with Alozie. When getting up, the Chelsea forward left a boot on her back. VAR intervened and the initial yellow card was rightly turned into a red. England now had a mountain to climb, even more so as they came went into extra-time.
Nigeria continued to look the most dangerous and it felt like the Lionesses were just clinging on to get to penalties.
England were near-perfect in the shootout. Georgia Stanway missed their first, but they held their nerve and scored all four of their others as Nigeria blazed two efforts high and wide.
The hero was, who else, Chloe Kelly. A year ago, she scored the winner as England won the Euros — and this time she smashed home the decisive penalty. Sweet Caroline blared out over the PA speakers and the nation breathed a sigh of relief.