England head coach Phil Neville says, “this is the game we wanted,” after it was confirmed his side will face champions the United States in the 2019 World Cup semifinals.
Jill Ellis’s side beat hosts France in Paris on Friday night to confirm the encounter in Lyon on Tuesday night, a rematch of the 2–2 draw that helped England on their way to SheBelieves Cup success in March.
Both sides have won all five of their games at the tournament and both have conceded just one goal on their various routes to the semifinal round.
The U.S. likely starts the match as favorites given their tag as defending champions, but Neville remains adamant he won’t change his approach for anybody.
“What we have seen recently is that everybody else is catching them and other sides are getting much better,” said Neville. “We just have to play our own game. If we play our own game like we did in the SheBelieves then we have a chance.
“We cannot change our style because we think they are a special case. We have got to be 20 percent braver than we have ever been before to win this game. If you waver, they will punish you. They come out hard early on. They have scored goals in the first 15 minutes of every game they have played here. They want to get the first punch in.”
Neville sat and watched the U.S.’s quarterfinal against France on Friday night but didn’t fear their performance and said as much about his own players’ attitudes toward either opponent after their own win against Norway.
Neville went as far to say he and his players wanted the U.S. because they want to beat the best in the tournament, but admitted the USA’s “ruthlessness” in their key strength.
“When we were watching the game last night, we wanted the USA to win because we wanted to play them. We have always known that when we got to the World Cup, we were going to have to beat the USA if we were going to win the tournament, whether that was in the semifinals or the final.
“We have reached the moment now where we have to deliver. This is the moment my players have been waiting for. We are not going to back away from this challenge. We have planned and prepared for this and we’re in great shape.”
Neville also reflected on the progress his team has made since coming up against the U.S. in just his third game as head coach, a game which would bring his first defeat.
“They beat us and beat us well that day. From that moment on, our challenge has been to get to the USA level and that is the barometer for us. I don’t think they will look forward to playing us. We knew that if we beat the USA before the World Cup, we had a real chance of winning the tournament and we won the SheBelieves. If they are looking at teams who can challenge, we will be number one or two on their list.”
England hasn’t had the best of records over the years against the U.S. and has beaten them only three times when Ellen White, the current World Cup’s joint top goal scorer, scored a last-minute winner at the SheBelieves Cup in 2017.
Since then, a defeat and a draw at the same tournament have followed but Neville says the U.S. knows England will not “shirk the challenge” but knows they have the experience of winning tournaments that his side currently doesn’t.
“You saw in the Spain game that they play in blocks of power and they know what to do to win games of football. They went to five at the back early and then when France were coming on strong at the end with five minutes to go, they took the ball to the right-hand corner and managed the game out.
“They have got that experience of knowing what it takes to win. They are the most ruthless team in the tournament. No one else scored 13 goals against Thailand. Their ruthlessness is their strength. They are the best in the world at what they do.”
While the U.S. holds many key threats and players who could knock England out of the tournament on Tuesday night, it’s Megan Rapinoe who has scored all four of the team’s knockout stage goals so far and will be looking to help fire her side to another World Cup final in Lyon.
“Some people can talk the talk and not deliver,” said Neville. “It is their whole team. They are not scared of putting their heads above the parapet to say, ‘this is what I believe in.’ They are fighting for equality within their own organization and the way Rapinoe campaigns for equal rights and speaks out against homophobia and racial discrimination says a lot about her. I was always taught to stand up for what I believed in and I admire her for what she does.”
France is currently experiencing record highs for temperature across the country, with the 45 degrees picked up on Friday afternoon the highest since records began.
While it will be cooler come Tuesday and a local 9 p.m. kickoff will also help ease record high temps, Neville says his team won’t be using the heat as an excuse should they go out.
It’s also the third major tournament in a row in which the Lionesses have reached a semifinal, the previous two ending in defeats to Japan and the Netherlands, respectively.
With expectations at an all-time high and a semifinal no longer something to shout about for a team that expects more, Neville admits a defeat on Tuesday would still “represent failure” for him.
“This England team is ready to win now,” he said. “I think the FA know I am doing a good job but I said to the players this morning that it would be easy now for them to think, ‘Whatever happens now, we’ve got to a semifinal, my reputation is intact, we’ll probably get invited to Downing Street, everybody loves us at home.’
“I don’t want that. We have to develop that serial winner mentality. We have to develop that ruthlessness. I don’t want us saying that there is no pressure on us. That’s the safe way to think. We have to be even braver. The only way for us to go back home is as winners. If we don’t, we have to keep striving to understand that losing a semifinal is not okay.”
The win against Norway combined with the U.S.’s victory on Friday did at least confirm Team GB will have a women’s football team at next summer’s Tokyo Olympics, and Neville confirmed he will coach the team in Japan next year.
“I will be the coach that takes the team to the Olympics. I have not thought about it, but obviously when the USA won last night, it confirmed our place in Tokyo and it is exciting. Seven out of the eight teams in the quarterfinals were from Europe and qualifying for the Olympics was one of the targets I had for this year. It is going to be very special but let’s go and win a World Cup first.”