Lucy Bronze says she “loves playing against the best in the world” as she prepares to come head-to-head with Megan Rapinoe in Lyon on Tuesday night.
England and the United States face off for a spot in Sunday’s 2019 World Cup final, with the holders favorites to progress after they knocked out hosts France last week.
But the Lionesses have impressed under Phil Neville and haven’t conceded a goal in their last four games as they look to banish the demons of Japan four years ago today.
Bronze has been one of the stars of the tournament, regularly lauded the best player in the world by her head coach and one of several candidates likely in the running to win the Golden Ball award.
But rather than shy away from the biggest challenge she’s had at the tournament so far, Bronze is actually excited about the prospect of facing a player who has scored all four of the U.S.’s knockout-stage goals.
“I remember a couple of years ago I had a list of players I wanted to face,” said Bronze. “The Martas, Kelly Smiths and Rapinoe definitely was on there. I remember the first time I played against her and I was so excited because I finally got to play against one of the world’s best.
“She’s still up there today as one of the best so of course I’m still excited to go toe-to-toe with one of the best. It’s the reason you play as a defender because all the best players are attackers. I get to match up against them on a continuous basis and I’m excited for it.”
Bronze will be one of a few players walking out at what has become a familiar stadium on Tuesday night as she’s played her club football for Lyon since leaving Manchester City two years ago.
The right back has never actually lost at the stadium as England look to reach the World Cup final for the first time.
“It’s a great start, isn’t it? Carli Lloyd has never lost here either, although she’s played less games than me. It’s a stadium I love playing at. I loved it when I was at Manchester City. The facilities, the stadium, the crowd.
“You know the kind of atmosphere you get, it brings out the best in me and the best in the England team. We live for these big games.”
Bronze has gone from good player to world-class in the four years since the last World Cup in Canada. Back-to-back goals against Norway and Canada as England reached the semifinals propelled the defender into the limelight and she’s continued her rise ever since.
Now widely regarded as the best full back in the world, she admits she owes a lot of her progress over the past couple of years to the dominant European champions who brought her to France.
“I think the player I was two, even four years ago, I’ve always had that desire to win — that competitiveness — the physical edge. But going to Lyon changed my game for the better.
“All those technical superstars in the world now, I studied them. I wanted to stop giving the ball away, I wanted to make my technique better. They’re probably the reason I scored that goal the other night — because I managed that technique. The player I feel I am owes a lot to the last two years at Lyon.”
Bronze has spent the last two years playing with the likes of Wendie Renard, Amandine Henry, Ada Hegerberg, Saki Kumagai, Dzsenifer Marozsán, and more as Lyon have continued their dominance on both the domestic and European stage.
It’s easy to understand why a humble footballer from the north east of England would scoff at the suggestion she’s the best in the world when she sees who she trains with every day, but England head coach Phil Neville is adamant Bronze is unmatched.
While Bronze is thankful for her manager’s support, she was typically blunt in her response when Neville first told her of his belief in her.
“He’s been vocal saying that and it’s a huge compliment for me,” she said. “He said it to me a couple of weeks after taking charge. He said, ‘You’re the best player in the world,’ and I replied, ‘No, Phil, I’m really not.’ He tells me every day and I just say, ‘No, Phil.’ It’s lovely that he has so much belief in me but for me personally, I don’t feel like I’m there yet.
“I’m still striving to be better. I want to be better than the game I had before. I’m a player who, if he sets a challenge, I want to do it as quickly as possible. He wants to drive me. He wants to push me on. I’ll take it on. It’s a lovely compliment to receive but I don’t think I’ll ever get there. I’ll try my best.”
When asked what level she aspires to reach in terms of the players ahead of her in the ranking, Bronze picked out one of her own Lyon teammates.
“In terms of football ability, Marozsán,” she said. “I know in this tournament she was injured in the first 10 minutes of the first game but in terms of talent and ability you rarely see players like that.
“The only other one was Kelly Smith. She had so much raw talent that I’ll never be able to hit a ball like she does. I always think about tricky, skillful players. I’m more… direct, physical. But I love Marozsán. I’ve watched her a long time and she’s one of the most talented, definitely.”
Now, attentions are on the U.S. and their superstars rather than Marozsán and German,y who departed in the quarterfinals over the weekend.
England have met the U.S. twice under Phil Neville but are yet to win since Ellen White’s last-minute goal clinched a famous win under Mark Sampson back in 2017.
The head-to-head strongly favors the champions who have never lost a World Cup match after scoring first and are on an unbeaten tournament run of 15 games, a record they would break if they can make it 16 on Tuesday.
Neville hinted on Sunday he could use Bronze in the midfield role as he did in their last encounter at the SheBelieves Cup but Bronze knows where her best position is and doesn’t believe the U.S. are invincible heading into the game.
“For USA, right back is my best position. I know I can do it well,” she said, before speaking about the match itself. “I don’t look at them and think that [destined to win it]. A lot of the games they’ve had have been tight. They’re winning games 2–1, it’s not been easy for them. It’s not an easy tournament.”
Bronze was also not overly fussed when faced with the stat that the U.S. have scored in the opening 12 minutes of every game so far in France.
“I don’t think we’ve conceded in the first 12 minutes either, so I could throw that stat out,” she laughed. “I do think the first 15 minutes are going to be quite intense. Both teams are energetic, physical, can go direct, and want to play football. They’ve started really fast, we’ve started really fast. For me, the first 15 minutes could be make or break.”