The evidence of England’s incremental growth under Phil Neville was on full display during their win against Norway in the quarterfinal. The attack shone, producing a display of clinical finishing, while the defence remained solid, and the Lionesses showed maturity and played with freedom and elegance. It was a statement; for the first time this summer, they truly lived up to their billing of title contenders.
For the second World Cup in a row, England will face the defending champions in the semifinal. By virtue of being the current holders, the USA would be considered favourites for this tie. They have not lost a match at the World Cup since 2011, and they rarely looked like losing in Paris.
Scoring an early goal always has a significant impact. Jill Scott’s strike against Norway set the tone for England’s performance, which was arguably their best one at this tournament so far. The Lionesses will undoubtedly want to get the first goal again on Tuesday, while preventing the USA from doing the same.
The only problem is that their semifinal opponents have mastered this art: not only have the USA scored first in all their games so far, they have also scored them quickly. The opening strikes have come in the 12th, 11th, third, seventh and fifth minutes.
They have also never lost when scoring first in a World Cup. That is no coincidence. Their game plan is to score as early as possible by aggressively overwhelming the opponent until they break through, and then force them to chase the Americans – which is a position no one wants to be in. They possess many key threats in their squad, but all four of their knockout goals have come through Megan Rapinoe.
Two goals apiece against Spain and France ensured the USA’s progression, and the two in the round of 16 were spot-kicks. More often than not, the sight of penalties has uncomfortably been on the horizon in this tournament; it is possible that one (or more) could decide the outcome of the first semifinal. Their styles of play are different, but England and the USA have won all five of their games and conceded just one goal en route to the showdown in Lyon.
There will be many mouthwatering match-ups in this tie, but none more so than Crystal Dunn against Nikita Parris and Rapinoe against Donald Trump Lucy Bronze. Dunn is a breathtaking attacking midfielder who has been refashioned into a left-back by Jill Ellis, and while she has taken on the challenge of playing in defence admirably, it is not her natural position and France recognised that. But any attempt to take advantage of that knowledge proved futile.
Supported by the US backline, Dunn performed her duties beautifully. France overloaded the right side, building their game plan on attacking an out-of-position player. Dunn fought back; it wasn’t always textbook defending, but she made clearance after clearance after anticipating Kadidiatou Diani’s every move. In Lyon, Parris will be the threat on England’s right, supported by Bronze’s swift and sharp deliveries.
The right-back was at her brilliant best and deservedly drew plaudits for her role as well as that screamer of a goal. Her link-up play with Parris, a partnership that thrived against Scotland in the group stage, was fruitful once again for England’s second. It was finished by Ellen White, whose form will pose a major threat in the semifinal.
When Bronze powers forward on one of her lung-busting runs, her absence is made up for by Steph Houghton: fantastic leader, expert organiser, and probably part-machine. The captain played every minute of the win after falling victim to a bruising tackle from Cameroon in the previous tie, forcing mistakes from Norway’s forwards and clearing off the line.
It ended with a fourth successive clean sheet following a defensive masterclass from the Lionesses, but there are a few creases for Neville to iron out before the semifinal. That statistic itself is misleading: England’s opponents have been creating chances on account of the occasional generosity at the back, not always finishing them off owing to a variety of reasons, but that alone could prove costly against a frontline as formidable as the USA’s where sloppy errors almost always go unpunished. Norway’s attack provided a stern test; the reigning world champions, however, are a different matter altogether.