If England’s 3-0 victory over Japan to clinch the SheBelieves Cup in March was the perfect statement of intent for one of the Women’s World Cup favourites then it’s the sort that Phil Neville’s team could do with repeating when the teams meet again on Wednesday.
Because while the Lionesses have taken maximum points from their opening group games with Scotland and Argentina to secure their place in the last 16 of the tournament with a game to spare, the performances have been more workmanlike than pulse-quickening so far.
In the 2-1 win over Scotland they cruised into an early two-goal lead but let their opponents back in rather than press home their advantage, while they toiled in defeating Argentina 1-0. For a side unafraid to talk up their ambitions, it has been a muted beginning.
Women’s World Cup holders the USA have set the standard, scoring 16 goals without reply in their two fixtures, while Germany and hosts France have won their groups with a perfect nine points. England can match that if they beat Japan for the second time in Neville’s tenure.
Neville has been relentless in his demand for high standards since being appointed 18 months ago. Results have been broadly good – 13 wins from 21 games – albeit perhaps a little more mixed than might be expected, given the former Manchester United defender’s message.
England players have welcomed his emphasis on passing after the more direct tactics of the Mark Sampson era, while the SheBelieves Cup – although only a friendly invitational tournament – franked their form against teams of the highest calibre.
One the other hand, it is debatable over how much to read into that win over Japan in Florida, given that both sides rested players, and subsequent 1-0 defeats against Canada and New Zealand – the latter just this month – have checked their momentum.
For all of their professionalism under Neville, England have rarely cut loose lately. Having hit 20 in their first eight fixtures of his reign, they have netted only 17 in 13 matches since, with four of their six wins in 2019 coming by a one-goal margin.
Tomorrow evening offers a chance to loosen the handbrake. England are already through and need only avoid defeat to top the group and ensure they will meet a third-placed team in the first knockout round, so they can afford to throw caution to the wind in Nice.
The return from injury of striker Toni Duggan, one of Neville’s most-used players, adds another weapon to England’s armoury. There is sense in starting slowly and growing into the Women’s World Cup, of course, but another 3-0 win over Japan would do no harm at all.