Title holders the United States versus Phil Neville’s Lionesses provides one of the most intriguing battles of the World Cup so far as the pair go head to head for a place in Sunday’s showpiece final.
Finals are nothing unusual to the U.S. as they look to defend their 2015 title, while England looks to make it third time lucky after losing the semifinal four years ago and again more recently at Euro 2017.
Jill Ellis and Neville have already met twice before during the latter’s 18-month tenure in charge, both at the SheBelieves Cup. The U.S. are yet to lose after a 1–0 win in 2018 and a 2–2 draw earlier this year but the stakes have never been higher with pressure on both teams for varying reasons.
With so many top players on show, we take a look at where they game could be won or lost in Lyon on Tuesday night.
Lucy Bronze and Nikita Parris vs. Megan Rapinoe vs. Crystal Dunn
There’s no doubt that a key part of England’s success so far has been down to the right-hand side with the combination play between Lucy Bronze and Nikita Parris.
The duo played together at both Everton and Manchester City and the partnership appears to have gone to another level during this World Cup. The pair combined several times to cut apart Norway but they’re up against two of the best players left in the tournament on Tuesday.
While Crystal Dunn is not a natural left back, she’s fast enough to live with the pair but she’ll need to be backed up by Megan Rapinoe to stop them getting overrun in the same way Norway did. If England isn’t precise in their passing, the space Bronze leaves behind her will be a gift for a player of Rapinoe’s talent.
The Reign FC star has scored all four goals of the U.S.’s knockout run so far and who gets the better of who will be one of the most telling parts in who runs out as winners on Tuesday.
Intriguingly though, Neville threw a curve ball in when asked about the head-to-head on Sunday.
“It might be Rachel Daly up against Rapinoe — you never know. She played really well there against Rapinoe at SheBelieves. We have a decision to make.”
Neville, though, did reaffirm his belief that Bronze, who will be playing in her home stadium on Tuesday, is the best player in the world.
“She’s unique in everything she does. Athleticism, the ability to go one v one, she’s fearless and has the ability to step up in big games. The qualities she possesses, shown, and proven makes her one of the most outstanding players in the world. That needs recognizing. Sometimes defenders are overlooked but they are special as well and we have a few.”
The Midfield Battle
It’s hard not to be intimidated by the U.S.’s midfield options. Rose Lavelle, the tricky technician, has shown glimpses of her quality while Sam Mewis has risen to the occasion several times during her first World Cup so far.
Julie Ertz is Julie Ertz. Tenacious, hard-working with an occasional eye for goal, she has proved to be Jill Ellis’s go-to player for the U.S.’s defensive midfield spot.
Their options are so strong that even the great Lindsey Horan has had to sit on the bench for the past two games. With a booking hanging over her and a potential suspension, Ellis chose not to play Horan against Spain but then remarkably didn’t recall her for the France game either.
Now with yellow cards wiped, Horan could return and make the midfield even stronger than it is and England will have to come up with something special to beat it.
In Phil Neville’s current midfield, both Fran Kirby and Jill Scott are given license to get forward but it does feel like a risky strategy against such a strong midfield trio. If you ask Scott to be more defensive you lose what she’s best at.
The other problem is the remaining midfielder, Keira Walsh, hasn’t had the best of tournaments and has looked tired at times during games. If she’s left on her own too much, England could be the creators of their own downfall. Neville could put the more tenacious Jade Moore in or replace Kirby with her to make up a strong midfield three to match up with the U.S., but either way, it does look like the Lionesses will have to put in the performance of their lives to win the key midfield battles.
Phil Neville has spoken a lot about his team being ready to win, but there’s a big difference between being ready to and actually doing it. The U.S. knows how to do it and Neville praised that experience on Sunday.
“Nobody cares who loses in semifinals. It’s all about winning and we want to win. If we don’t get the right result we will see it as a failure. Our mind-set is about winning. Elite sport is about winning. Nobody cares about silver or bronze, it’s the gold medal everyone wants.
“USA have that ruthless streak. They did what it took to win and manage the game [against France] and celebrated winning. In March, we won and we held the SheBelieves trophy. When you win and stand on that platform have the taste to want to do it again.”
Neville says he sees a team in England that is ready to go a step further, but have to be “20 percent braver” to beat the indomitable U.S. They are the marking point, the current holders and their performances so far appear to show they have no intention of letting go of their trophy.
When push comes to shove on Tuesday, they know how to get over the line. As yet, England don’t. The Lionesses have also looked tired late in games and this is certainly one that could go all the way in the current Lyon heatwave.
England’s Ability to Cut Out Errors
It’s hard to be critical of a team that has conceded one goal in five games and none in their last four, but there’s an underlying feeling England will soon get caught out, perhaps in similar fashion to how Germany came undone against Sweden after not conceding in their first four games.
It feels a long time ago but the opening 10 minutes of England versus Scotland, pre-penalty, showed a small glimpse of what the U.S. could do on Tuesday. Scotland twice exposed the gaps left by Lucy Bronze but were unable to make the most of their opportunities.
Argentina never had enough to test them but it’s fair to say England will — or should — be wondering how they didn’t concede in any of the three games against Japan, Cameroon, or Norway. Japan created opening after opening but a combination of wasteful finishing, a poor final ball, or stunning Karen Bardsley saves kept things intact.
Against 46th-ranked Cameroon, they nearly allowed their opponents back in the game but were saved by an offside flag and VAR. Even then, Alex Greenwood’s poor back pass, something which was replicated by Millie Bright against Norway, almost put them in trouble, but once again Bardsley came up big.
Norway also created good openings and again took advantage of the space vacated by England’s right-hand side but once again weren’t clinical enough to make it count. Steph Houghton’s goal line clearance was another near moment and in truth, England’s defense has looked anything but convincing throughout the tournament.
If they can get through the ultimate test on Tuesday night, they’ll believe they can do anything, but it will take a monumental effort to stop the U.S. scoring at least one.
Who Gets the First Goal Might — Possibly Will — be Crucial
Stopping the U.S. scoring threads nicely into the final point. The first goal. England has scored first in every game so far and when they’ve scored first in any game under Phil Neville, they’ve won, bar one exception — U.S.
The 2–2 draw in March was the only time England has scored first under Neville and failed to go on and win, while the U.S. simply don’t lose after going in front. Ellis’s side has never lost a single World Cup match when going in front and given their record for early goals in this tournament, England will have to be careful.
Remarkably, the U.S. has scored inside 12 minutes during all of their five matches at the tournament so far, but Neville counteracted that when questioned about it on Sunday.
“We got the fastest goal in the tournament so they will be worried about our power play as well. We have to be ready. They do come out of the traps but so do we. The first 15 minutes will shape the way the game goes.
“In other games they’ve scored because the team has panicked under the pressure. We have to be ready for that. Good teams like to put the other team on the back foot, I want us to go for it.”