Great Britain are through to the knockout stages of the Olympics women’s football competition with a game to spare after a 1-0 victory over hosts Japan.
It was a professional display in a contest they bossed, though not with outright control. Similar to their 2-0 victory over Chile, they won the most important passages and, again, it was Ellen White’s name on the scoresheet.
A near-post flick on in the 74th minute settled this tie: White’s 13th in her last 14 internationals, for England and Team GB. That her three goals have come from just five shots says as much about her effectiveness in front of goal as it does of how her team have not quite been at their creative best. Nevertheless, the first part of the job is done.
And with something of a free hit against Canada on Tuesday, the toughest fixture of Group E, the chance to rest players and experiment with an incredibly talented squad bodes well for the business end of this competition. Avoiding defeat will also see them top the group.
For Japan, their hopes of automatic qualification take a hit, especially after Canada beat Chile earlier in the day to move to four points, with a cushion of three in second. However, they can still make it through if they defeat the South Americans on Tuesday to move to four points and, thus, qualify as the best two of the three third-place sides.
If Heger Riise was encouraged by how well Team GB started in their opening game, she will have been irked by the disjointed nature of their first-half on Saturday evening.
A relatively mild evening and four changes, including recent Arsenal signing Nikita Parris out on the right wing, suggested greater energy and threat even if immediate cohesion was a potential issue.
That was owed more to Japan than any system recalibration. The hosts were compact in shape, sitting low while showcasing their technically proficient passing wares when progressing up the field. It’s a method that has served them well, as evidenced by 2011’s World Cup win, 2015’s final appearance and of course silver at London 2012. As such, its absence in their opening 1-1 draw with Canada was particularly jarring and led them to wholesale tweaks of their own.
Their knack of closing space and timing every step in to discomfort a white shirt elicited a few frustrated grumbles from Kim Little and some bruises for centre-back Leah Williamson. And in turn, led to their most promising moments. Especially so when winning the ball in Team GB territory, even if worthwhile attempts were not forthcoming. Striker Yuka Momiki, 14 goals from 37 caps, was brought on after the break to rectify this.
But the visitors stepped it up, meeting Japan woman-for-woman, particularly Keira Walsh, who began to take a few more risks with the ball at her feet.
Her comfort owed much to the introduction of Scotland’s Caroline Weir, who gave both her and Little an extra outlet in the middle, thus giving their opposition duo Hina Sugita and Emi Nakajima, something else to worry about.
The wings were utilised better, with Parris and Lauren Hemp encouraged to dribble at full-backs Asato Miyagawa and Risa Shimizu, respectively. Japan retreated deeper, offering the odd pocket of real estate in front of their box.
Yet, as late as the 70th minute, both teams had only managed a single shot on target. However, Great Britain doubled their tally to take the lead just four minutes later.
Lucy Bronze found herself in an advanced position with time on the ball and crossed. White, ever the opportunist, opted for a typical goalscorer’s run, just in front of the near post, stealing a march on defender and goalkeeper. A flicked header, along with a slight deflection off said defender, ballooned into the far corner.
Naturally, the role of aggressors switched. Mana Iwabuchi, who recently completed a move from Aston Villa to Arsenal, though more presciently, provided the late equaliser against Canada, was thrown on to repeat the trick. However, service up to her was lacking: every prospective through pass nipped in the bud by a reinforced midfield, and the odd hopeful heave into the box claimed easily by Ellie Roebuck.
To have secured qualification a game early, without conceding, is a remarkable feat for Riise’s group. They came into this tournament cold, without a competitive warm-up to acclimatise to conditions and each other. Yet with one final group match to build up to their best, their hopes for a medal, perhaps even a shot at gold, are high.