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US and Japan make fast World Cup starts but England labour to victory

England squeezed past Haiti 1-0 as they began their Women’s World Cup title bid in unconvincing fashion on Saturday, but holders the United States and former champions Japan were far more comfortable.

European champions England have been touted as the prime challengers to a United States team chasing an unprecedented third World Cup crown in a row.

But they will have to do far better than the display they put on in front of nearly 45,000 spectators in Brisbane, where a Haiti side making their World Cup debut could have snatched a point at the end.

A Georgia Stanway penalty in the first half put Sarina Wiegman’s side ahead, but despite having more of the ball and more shots, England had goalkeeper Mary Earps to thank for preserving their narrow lead.

She made a superb save with her left leg as the time ticked down after Roseline Eloissaint found herself all alone with only Earps to beat.

England, who have been embroiled in a dispute with the FA over bonuses in the lead-up to the tournament, are aiming to add the World Cup to the European crown they won at Wembley last year.

China and Denmark, the other teams in the group, were to meet in the final match of a bumper day of four games on Saturday.

– Super Smith –

In contrast to England’s laboured performance, the United States and Japan were rampant against other supposed minnows.

The United States cruised to a 3-0 win over Vietnam — it should have been many more — before Japan crushed Zambia 5-0.

Sophia Smith was the star of the show for the US team at Eden Park in Auckland, scoring twice and setting up captain Lindsey Horan for the third in front of just over 41,000 fans.

The only sour note for Vlatko Andonovski’s side, which featured six World Cup debutants at kick-off, was that they were not more ruthless in front of the goal.

They had 27 attempts to none for Vietnam and Alex Morgan missed a penalty.

“At the end, I just felt we needed to be a little bit better with the final shot,” said the coach.

“We created opportunities, we had a penalty kick, obviously enough to score a few more goals, but there are lots of positives from game one going into game two.”

Next up for the Americans, who brought veteran Megan Rapinoe off the bench for the last 30 minutes, are the Netherlands in a re-run of the 2019 final. The US won that game 2-0 to retain their title.

‘No excuses’

Japan are not seen as the threat they were in 2011, when they went on to lift the World Cup, but they were much too good for Zambia.

Zambia are the lowest-ranked team at the World Cup and they were on the back foot for long periods against a Japan team who looked like scoring every time they went forward.

Much like the US against Vietnam, the scoreline actually flattered the losers and Zambia could easily have lost by more in front of 16,111 spectators in the New Zealand city of Hamilton.

Hinata Miyazawa scored twice and Mina Tanaka, Jun Endo and Riko Ueki were also on the scoresheet as Japan joined Spain on three points in Group C.

Spain, another of the pre-tournament favourites, cruised to a 3-0 win over Costa Rica on Friday.

To cap a disastrous day for Zambia, goalkeeper Catherine Musonda was sent off at the death for a second yellow card and conceded a penalty, which Ueki slotted in at the second attempt.

“We’re not looking at excuses — we have just not played well this evening,” said Zambia’s coach Bruce Mwape.

Title contenders Sweden, France and the Netherlands — who face Portugal before taking on the USA on Thursday — all play on Sunday.

Off the pitch, New Zealand’s squad was temporarily evacuated from its hotel in Auckland after a fire, the team said, but all players and staff were safe.