England qualified for the quarter-finals of the World Cup with a deserved, but somewhat controversial, 3-0 win over a game Cameroon side in Valenciennes on Sunday evening.
Goals from Steph Houghton, Ellen White and Alex Greenwood saw Phil Neville’s side to a comfortable-looking victory, but the game turned on two key VAR decisions.
The first was to, correctly, award White a second goal on the stroke of half time after it had initially been ruled out for offside.
The second was altogether more contentious, however, as Ajara Nchout found the net with what looked, to the naked eye, like a wholly legitimate goal, only to be ruled the slimmest of offsides.
Moments later, Greenwood got on the end of a pre-rehearsed corner routine to score England’s third and settle a tie that offered far more in the drama stakes than quality football.
Alain Djeumfa’s side set out their stall early on to defend deep and with numbers, allowing England to retain the ball outside the attacking third and soaking up pressure.
It’s an approach that largely worked in the first half against an England side flush with finishers but occasionally found wanting creatively when an opposition sits in, as Argentina did in their group game.
They did manage to pick holes in the Cameroon defence early on but the final ball eluded them when both Toni Duggan and Nikita Parris failed to pick out a player in the box.
Somewhat fittingly, it was a Cameroon error rather than any particularly incisive play from the favourites that led to the opening goal.
Parris whipped in a deep cross from the right that may have found the arriving Duggan only for defender Augustine Ejangue to intercept and cushion the ball back to her keeper.
Annette Ngo Ndom hadn’t really been troubled to this point but she made the critical error of picking the ball up, judging Ejangue’s touch not to be a pass, and England were awarded an indirect free kick on the six-yard line.
Despite all 11 Cameroon players stationing themselves on the line as a makeshift wall, they left a gaping hole by the left-hand post that captain Houghton was all-too-happy to arrow her shot into when teed up by Duggan.
England had no intention of easing off at 1-0 and continued to probe for chances, but the only real effort they could muster was a curling shot from Duggan that never looked likely to find the corner.
Cameroon’s only real outlet was the tireless Nchout up front, and a smart dummy from the striker created a chance to break but, with few players being committed, the move simply broke down.
England looked set to take a one-goal advantage into the break but, in the final of the four allotted minutes of added time, White found herself clear on goal and finished expertly into the corner.
The goal was initially flagged for offside by the referee’s assistant but, after referring to VAR, referee Qin Liang rightly changed her decision and awarded the goal.
The Cameroon players made their grievances clear but they emerged for the second half with a new, attacking focus and looked to have pulled a goal back within three minutes.
A wonderful, flowing move saw captain Gabrielle Aboudi Onguene cut the ball back for Nchout on the penalty spot, and the hero from the win over New Zealand buried her shot low into the corner.
Yet again, VAR was consulted after the goal had initially been awarded and, yet again, the original decision was overturned.
Freezeframes showed the heel of the retreating Onguene’s foot was perhaps a centimetre beyond the second English defender and, by the letter of the law, the goal had to be rescinded.
Cameroon, as they had following White’s goal, argued their case vociferously and initially refused to restart the game, and Nchout had to be consoled by both managers.
The African side introduced Alexandra Takounda for Gaelle Enganamouit to inject some pace into their attack and the winger should have pulled a goal back almost immediately.
An atrocious backpass from full-back Greenwood allowed Takounda a free run on goal but, perhaps still warming up, she shot straight at keeper Karen Bardsley, who spread herself well.
Moments later, Takounda was involved again as Bardsley didn’t commit to a ball over the top and Takounda nicked it clear, but Houghton was on hand to clear the danger.
Just as Cameroon had their tails up, England sealed the win as Greenwood swept home Duggan’s cross as their opponents fell asleep from a corner.
There was yet more VAR farce as Jodie Taylor skied a shot over the bar and video technology was used to view a potential foul on Fran Kirby, but sanity prevailed and no spot-kick was awarded.
Taylor nearly had her goal, and England’s fourth, as she beat Ngo Ndom to the ball and lifted it over the keeper, but the outstanding Estelle Johnson managed to get back and clear.
There were ugly scenes in injury time as Takounda left her studs in late on Houghton right in front of the dugouts and surprisingly only saw yellow, but it was to be England’s day in Valenciennes.
England: Karen Bardsley; Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton, Millie Bright, Alex Greenwood; Fran Kirby, Ciara Walsh, Jill Scott (Lucy Staniforth 78); Nikita Parris (Leah Williamson 84), Toni Duggan, Ellen White (Jodie Taylor 64).
Subs not used: Carly Telford (gk), Mary Earps (gk), Abbie McManus, Demi Stokes, Jade Moore, Rachel Daly, Georgia Stanaway, Karen Carney, Beth Mead.
Cameroon: Annette Ngo Ndom; Yvonne Leuko, Augustine Ejangue (Ysis Sonkeng 64), Estelle Johnson, Aurelle Awona; Raissa Feudjio, Jeanette Yango, Michaela Abam (Ninon Abena 68); Ajara Nchout, Gabrielle Aboudi Onguene, Gaelle Enganamouit (Alexandra Takounda 53).
Subs not used: Marthe Ongmahan (gk), Isabelle Mambingo (gk), Christine Manie, Madeleine Ngono Mani, Claudine Meffometou, Charlene Meyong, Henriette Akaba, Marlyse Ngo Ndoumbouk, Genevieve Ngo Mbeleck.
Booked: Yvonne Leuko (4), Alexandra Takounda (90+10).
Referee: Qin Liang (China).
Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Estelle Johnson (Cameroon).