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After a thrilling quarter-final win over Norway which banished the patchy displays of their four previous matches, Phil Neville turned to his players at the final whistle and asked: “Are you ready to win a World Cup?”
Ever since he took the job 17 months ago, England’s head coach has claimed his team can win in France and finally he has the kind of performance to back it up.
Four years ago in Ottawa, Lucy Bronze’s screamer against Norway earned England a first World Cup knockout win, en route to a third-place finish.
On a balmy night in Le Havre, the Scandinavian side proved the catalyst once more as Bronze unleashed another thunderbolt to seal a 3-0 victory and a record third consecutive major tournament semi-final.
Neville said of the 27-year-old Lyon right-back: “You’ve seen tonight that Lucy Bronze is the best player in the world.”
She now heads to her new home city to take on either hosts France or the holders United States in the semi-finals just as England appear to be reaching their peak at a perfect time.
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The ruthless Manchester City spine gets help
Five games, five wins, 11 goals scored and only one conceded tells of an impressive campaign, but occasional defensive mistakes as the team have tired in second halves of games has kept questions about England’s capability front of mind.
The fact they have reached the last four owes much to a Manchester City spine, which has been as ruthless in attack as it has been miserly in defence.
Up front, new City striker Ellen White scored her fifth goal of the tournament, putting her equal in the race for the Golden Boot with Australia’s Sam Kerr and the United States’ Alex Morgan.
In midfield, her club-mate Jill Scott set the tone against Norway with a third-minute goal, and has been England’s most consistent performer in France.
In defence, City skipper Steph Houghton continued to be England’s saviour with last-ditch interceptions and a clearance off the line. Another City player, Karen Bardsley, made further important stops in goal.
The difference on this occasion was that others joined the party. Despite a second penalty miss of the tournament, Nikita Parris improved after a quiet game against Cameroon.
Fran Kirby was an important cog in destabilising the Norway defence made up of her Chelsea team-mates Maren Mjelde and Maria Thorisdottir, who was in tears at the end.
And although Millie Bright had a difficult night, she was aided by another Manchester City player – Demi Stokes – at left-back as the pair helped nullify the first-half threat of their most dangerous opponent Caroline Graham Hansen.
Before the game, the players, whose ambition matches Neville’s, said there was more to come, and they delivered.
Neville almost faultless in France
Barring his new haircut, which he called a “disaster”, Neville has been almost faultless in France.
His bold claims about his players’ capabilities and his team’s aims had not been matched by the calibre of their performances, but that has now changed.
The squad rotation – having used 22 of his 23 players – appears to have paid dividends as his team tore into Norway in the first half despite their country’s media claiming they were the fitter side.
And his relaxed nature – seen when he was smiling on the touchline shortly after his team went 3-0 up – has had a positive influence on his players.
Extra days off have been welcomed, helping the squad switch off rather than bombarding them with endless meetings.
Bronze has praised Neville’s approach, where he trades on the psychological side of the game rather than overloading them with tactical masterclasses. She has likened his style to men’s England manager Gareth Southgate, who led his team to the World Cup semi-finals last year.
Some of the players say Neville reminds them of an annoying older brother, but if he can take them to the final and beyond, an occasional bad gag will be allowed.
His claim after the game that they were “having the time of their lives” looked entirely apt, and the perfect antidote to the added pressure that will now follow.
Can England raise levels once more?
Neville’s claim that his team would need to improve “15-20%” to match Norway came true, but they will now have to raise their standards even further against France or United States, who are aiming for a third consecutive final.
At Euro 2017, England beat France for the first time in 43 years to reach the last four, where they were thumped 3-0 by hosts and eventual champions the Netherlands.
That was a harsh lesson in how a home crowd can galvanise a team – and one who were ranked lower than England. Should they overcome the US, Corinne Diacre’s impressive French side will have the backing of Lyon, the home of Europe’s most successful club side.
As for the US, former goalkeeper Hope Solo says their superior fitness is often the key to their success, and has questioned whether England can match them from that perspective.
Keeping his players fresh may help Neville in this cause, and he has already overseen a 2-2 draw against Jill Ellis’s side en route to winning their first SheBelieves Cup title in March.
His team will need to cut out the errors, but that has been a narrative for five games now and it hasn’t caused any irreparable damage.
“We want to come home with the World Cup,” Neville said. “I keep thinking to myself, ‘stop saying it’, but we can’t hide away from the fact, something’s happening.”
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