By Andrew Gibney
As the sun dropped from the Manchester sky, behind the shadow of the Etihad Stadium, Mark Sampson watched on as his Lionesses squeezed past China with a 2-1 victory at the Academy Stadium.
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It was England’s last preparation game before June’s World Cup in Canada, and despite the quick start with two early goals, the overall performance will have raised a few concerns heading into the tournament.
In one of the first summer evenings of the year, a crowd of 5,665 were pleasantly surprised as Jodie Taylor opened the scoring for the home side after just 40 seconds.
England were active from the start, with the majority of the side charging forward from the half-way line at kick-off. China didn’t see it coming and were caught cold. Fran Kirby raced down the left and picked out the onrushing Taylor at the back post.
After the game, the Portland Thorns forward laughed that she was happy with the finish because her shooting in the warm-up hadn’t been quite up to scratch.
Things looked ominous for China when England doubled their lead just 10 minutes in. Jordan Nobbs played in a smart cross from the right, and Kirby then took advantage of a slip from Ma Jun to catch the ball on her chest before firing past a helpless Zhang Yue.
At that stage, it looked like England could have notched up a cricket score, but credit to Hao Wei’s team for holding strong. China finished third in the 2014 Women’s Asian Cup and after 15 minutes you could see the confidence begin to grow within the group.
No longer were the away side rushing their passes. With more belief in their ability, they began to enjoy longer spells of possession and it quickly paid off. The dangerous Wang Shuang drilled in a teasing cross, Siobhan Chamberlain and the England defence failed to deal with it, and striker Wang Shanshan nodded in from close range.
After the game, Sampson was asked if he was concerned over the way England defended crosses into the box, especially with the aerial challenge that France will bring in the opening game of the World Cup:
“Yeah, I think they did cause us some problems today. They had some tall players in the team and we didn’t defend those situations very well at all, which we are disappointed with.”
The second period failed to match the energy and excitement of the first, which was a testament to the improvement China made after a difficult start.
England created a few good chances, with Kirby and substitute Toni Duggan going close, but Zhang made some excellent saves and kept her team in with a chance.
With 15 minutes remaining, goal scorer Wang Shanshan had a great chance to level the game when a cross from the right fell to her at the back post, but she couldn’t get the ball from out from under her feet.
This is the sort of scare that gives the England staff cause for concern. However, the positives from the game should certainly outweigh the negatives, and the coach was happy with the performance:
“It was an important result for us,” said Sampson. “We wanted to maintain momentum after our success in Cyprus and, against a very difficult Chinese team, we were outstanding in spells, especially in the first 15 minutes when we scored twice and should have scored four.”
There is still work to be done – both on and off the pitch. With a huge group of talented players to choose from, Sampson now has until the 10th of May to pick his final squad for the World Cup, while hoping to iron out some issues before taking on France on the 9th of June.
England: 4-3-3: Chamberlain; A. Scott, Bassett, Greenwood, Rafferty (Stoney 72); Nobbs (Potter 84), J. Scott (White 90), Williams, Moore (Duggan 62); Taylor (Sanderson 79), Kirby (Aluko 72)
China: 4-3-3: Zhang Yue; Liu Shanshan, Ma Jun, Li Dongna, Wu Haiyan; Tang Jiali (Zhang Rui 46), Ren Guixin (Li Ying 85), Tan Ruyin; Xu Yanlu (Han Peng 66), Wang Shanshan, Wang Shuang
Goals: England 2 (Taylor 1, Kirby 10), China 1 (Wang Shanshan 16)
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