England begin their World Cup conquest this Sunday as they take on home nations rivals Scotland. It will mark the start of a tournament that holds high hopes for the Lionesses.
The usual suspects - the USA, France and Germany - are favourites to lift the trophy, but England will be hot on their heels this summer, buoyed by their recent success at the SheBelieves Cup. That trophy marked a run of successful tournaments for the Lionesses, after consecutive third place finishes at the Euros and the previous World Cup.
Their first challenge will be Scotland, a team that has been steadily on the rise of late. The nominal ‘third best’ team in the group, the Scots will be out to gather as many points as possible to ensure passage through to the next round. With the four best third place teams going through, Scotland will be sure to provide a stiff challenge for England.
The Lionesses then will face Argentina the following Friday. The South American side have had their fair share of hardship getting to the finals, with the women’s game criminally under-supported in Argentina. They will be making their first World Cup appearance in 12 years, and will be favourites to finish bottom of the group.
Then comes the crunch game for first place as England take on Japan on Wednesday 19th June. It will be a game filled with emotional charge, as the Lionesses look to put the demons of four years ago to bed.
A crippling Laura Bassett own goal in the 92nd minute saw Japan go through in the 2015 semi final at the expense of England, who had their hearts broken in the cruellest possible way. While a group stage game may not match the magnitude of a semi final, the Lionesses will be desperate to shake off any 2015 hangovers. A 3-0 victory in the SheBelieves Cup will give the Lionesses confidence in this match, though.
The game will also likely hold significance over who England will get in the second round. A first place finish in Group D would see the Lionesses take on the best third place team from Groups B, E and F. This selection will likely be weaker, but could see the Lionesses take on some decent sides such as New Zealand, Spain or China.
This is still a more inviting prospect, though, than who may await England should they finish second. Should this happen, then the Lionesses would be taking on the winners of Group E - likely to be either Canada or the Netherlands.
Both sides are ranked in the FIFA top ten, whilst England recently lost a friendly to Canada and crashed out 3-0 to the Netherlands in the the Euro 2017 semi final. Friendlies and past meetings, however, will likely go out of the window should this eventuality come around.
Beyond this point it is, of course, incredibly hard to predict who the Lionesses may be facing. First place will be the target in Group D, as Phil Neville will be looking to build up his side’s winning mentality throughout the tournament.
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The World Cup will be Neville’s first major tournament as England manager, and the ex-Manchester United man has kept his cards relatively close to his chest in terms of tactics and personnel. Rotation has been a hallmark of Neville’s management, and recent matches have seen the Lionesses flit between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3. He has stated, however, that he knows his best line up.
There will be some predictable certainties on the team sheet. Skipper Steph Houghton will surely be at at heart of England’s defence, with Lucy Bronze another key player for the Lionesses almost certain to start.
Nikita Parris has been on scintillating form for Manchester City this season, and will be another guaranteed starter on the right wing. Toni Duggan on the opposite flank is also likely to start, as is the experienced Jill Scott. The midfielder will be appearing in her seventh consecutive major tournament for England, stretching back to the 2007 World Cup.
The centre forward role is up for grabs between Jodie Taylor and Ellen White. Taylor was the top scorer at Euro 2017 with five goals, but has not scored for England in over a year. White, meanwhile, has put away a couple in recent friendlies against Spain and Brazil. Left back will also be up for grabs, and the inclusion of Fran Kirby will likely depend on whether England opt to got with a 4-2-3-1 or not.
Either way, England are a strong and capable side who will be looking to go all the way in this tournament. Some of the results in the Lionesses pre-tournament friendlies have not been wholly encouraging, but it would be unwise to hold too much stock by such matches. The Lionesses will go into the World Cup full of belief that they can take home the grand prize.
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