England captain Steph Houghton is relishing the prospect of captaining her country at her club home when the Lionesses face Canada at the Manchester City Academy Stadium on Friday night.
It will mark the first time the sides have met since the 2015 World Cup quarterfinal when Houghton captained her side to a famous victory and a first semifinal for the women’s team.
“As soon as we knew the fixture was coming and we knew it was at the CFA it was nice for our team but also nice for me personally as I missed the last one.”
England hosted China at the City Academy in the build-up to the last World Cup when Canada themselves were hosts but Houghton, along with Lucy Bronze and Karen Carney, missed the encounter through injury.
Houghton added, “To be able to lead my country out at my home ground will be an amazing occasion for me and the whole team.”
Despite victory in their last meeting in front of 54,000 fans in Vancouver four years ago, Houghton is expecting no easy task against a side ranked just two spots below England in the rankings and beat the Lionesses in a friendly a week before the tournament got underway back in 2015.
“We’ve done our homework and we’ll pay our respects to them because they’re a very good side,” added the captain.
“They’ve got some very good players, the likes of [Christine] Sinclair, who has been a world-class forward for a number of years. 2015 was a great match and good memories for us but we know Canada will be a threat and we’ll have to be really on our game.”
England’s successful SheBelieves Cup saw them bring home the trophy for the first time at the fourth time of asking; wins against Japan and Brazil either side of a draw against hosts and world champions USA enough for the first silverware under Phil Neville and England’s first since the Cyprus Cup leading up to the last World Cup.
But despite a general improvement at one end of the field compared to the friendlies at the end of 2018 where England were wasteful in front of goal, there was still a hint of disorganization in defense as England once again conceded soft goals.
Friday night may be the first time Neville can call on a back four comprising of Houghton, Lucy Bronze, Millie Bright, and Demi Stokes as injuries have hampered his selection over the past 12 months and Houghton admits she and her teammates are as “hard on ourselves” as anybody else.
“For us, a back four unit and goalkeeper, it’s important to have as many players available as possible for selection,” she admitted. “As a unit, to have that competition bringing the best out of each other has been really worthwhile in training and hopefully has built relationships along the way.
“You need that understanding and that ability to communicate because we want to be able to keep clean sheets on regular occasions so to have all those players back fit and in camp can only bode well for us.”
Regarding some of the soft goals England has allowed past them in recent months, including set-piece goals against Australia, Sweden, and the U.S., Houghton admitted the team need to be at “100 percent” when it comes to the World Cup.
“We’re as hard on ourselves as anybody and we know we need to be at 100 percent when we go to France in every area of our game, not just set pieces. In defending in general, with the ball, we know as a group we can improve every single day in training and that’s how we attack every day in training.
“We give everything, make sure we’re not afraid to make mistakes but at the same time it’s about your reaction. I really feel we’ve got each other’s backs if that does happen.”
The caveat to that is England has undoubtedly played a much more attacking game under Neville than his predecessor Mark Sampson, the former head coach preferred a more direct and defense-first approach and the style under Neville has certainly been easier on the eye.
While nobody in the squad or the head coach is arrogant enough to say England has already hit their peak after just 14 months under the new regime, Houghton is confident the team will be where it needs to be come the World Cup opener against Scotland.
“Phil came in and changed our style,” she said. “I think as a squad we are really comfortable with what he demands from us with and without the ball. Ultimately, we want to win so if that means keeping clean sheets and being in control with the ball that’s what have to do.
“We’ve also got forwards who are clinical enough to get the goals but also enable us to defend properly and stop other teams. We are nearly there but will be trying closer to perfection than where we are now.”