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England survive Nigeria fright but must improve to win World Cup

The best teams find a way to win when playing badly, so says the football cliche, but England will surely be out of the Women’s World Cup if there is a repeat of their display against Nigeria.

The European champions got away with one on Monday in Brisbane as they stumbled into the quarter-finals 4-2 on penalties.

Nigeria are ranked 40th in the world to England’s four but they hit the woodwork twice and were clearly the better side, even before Lauren James was sent off in the 87th minute, AFP reported.

It was not like Sarina Wiegman’s players had not been warned.

Nigeria had defeated co-hosts Australia 3-2.

Brazil, Germany and Olympic champions Canada were all dumped out in the group phase as lower-ranked teams progressed.

Back-to-back defending champions the United States were then bundled out on penalties by Sweden in the last 16.

That left England as favourites to win the World Cup for the first time but they looked ponderous and devoid of ideas as they clung on for a 0-0 draw against Nigeria to force penalties.

Former England defender Anita Asante said there would be some “hard truths in the changing room”.

“England are very lucky to have progressed to the quarter-finals,” she told the BBC.

“And they definitely need to step up their performances if they want to get all the way to a final.”

– ‘Lost her emotions’ –

England find themselves three victories away from winning the World Cup but they have been a mixed bag so far in Australia and New Zealand.

They needed a penalty to squeeze past tournament debutants Haiti in their opening game, beat a limited Denmark by the same 1-0 scoreline and then blew away China 6-1.

The talented Chelsea attacker James scored the only goal against Denmark and then almost single-handedly demolished China with two goals and three assists.

But her sending-off for a needless stamp on Michelle Alozie will mean she misses at least Saturday’s quarter-final against Colombia or Jamaica. They play on Tuesday in the last 16.

James will be a major miss, although Wiegman did have the consolation of key midfielder Keira Walsh returning from a knee knock against Nigeria.

Wiegman refused to blame the 21-year-old James.

“I think, in a split-second, she just lost her emotions,” said Wiegman, who took her native Netherlands to the World Cup final four years ago, where they lost 2-0 to the United States.

“And of course, she does not want to hurt anyone.”

– ‘England will be ready’ –

Wiegman has earned rich praise in England since taking the hosts to European Championship glory last summer, the country’s first major title in women’s football.

But she appeared lacking in ideas against a Nigeria side who seemed perfectly set up by their American coach Randy Waldrum to nullify England’s 3-5-2 formation.

Perhaps most damningly, England actually looked much more comfortable once James had been sent off and Wiegman reverted to a tried-and-tested back four, without ever really looking like scoring.

On the positive side, England have now got the experience of taking part in — and winning — a penalty shootout at this World Cup.

“If you’re going to go all the way and win a World Cup, you might need to win a shootout,” Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall told the BBC.

“Now, if this comes up in the competition again, England will be ready for it.”