Phil Neville might not have acknowledged it but England go into their World Cup quarter-final against Norway tomorrow evening with a problem.
Centre-backs Steph Houghton and Millie Bright are both “major doubts” to play in Le Havre, while right-back Lucy Bronze is also a worry.
Houghton is battling against an ankle injury picked up in the dying moments of England’s chaotic 3-0 win over Cameroon in the previous round, while both Bright and Bronze are struggling with a virus amid France’s heatwave.
Neville is completely relaxed about the situation. He’s rotated his side readily over the past year, so if Leah Williamson and Abbie McManus have to come into central defence they’ll be ready for the challenge.
“If Steph and Millie are out we bring someone else in, no problem – it will be a seamless transition,” he said. “Everyone knows the system, the way we play and I’ve utter belief in all my players.
“I said six months ago I didn’t want to get to the quarter finals of the World Cup and throw someone in we haven’t tried or tested. As a coach you plan for these moments. I’m totally relaxed.
“Injuries and illnesses mean opportunities for others. I would put my life on Leah Williamson and Abbie McManus being the best two players on the pitch.”
Injuries and illnesses happen and can’t be helped, although Norway goalkeeper Ingrid Hjelmseth isn’t convinced by the Houghton prognosis. “It’s nice for them to let me think she’s injured but I think she’s going to play,” she said.
Neville is of course right to point to his preparation and instil confidence in his players. But the potential loss of three of his back four before facing a talented and dangerous Norway side could be a real handicap.
Houghton is not only the captain: she is a natural leader and third-most capped player, behind Karen Carney and Jill Scott. The Manchester City defender has established a partnership with Bright, playing alongside each other in three of their four World Cup games so far.
By contrast, McManus started the 1-0 win over Argentina and came off the bench against Scotland, while Williamson’s only World Cup involvement so far came as an 84th-minute substitute in the Cameroon clash. They have won just 23 England caps between them.
The pairing’s relative inexperience is a concern, but how they will adapt to Neville’s demanding system may prove more significant.
Despite winning all four of their games so far the Lionesses have at times laboured over their possession-based ethos, with both Houghton and Bright guilty of giving the ball away in dangerous areas while carrying out orders to play out from the back.
The Japanese high press in the second half of their final Group D match in particular had England rattled and it was only several strong saves from Karen Bardsley which spared them.
If England’s experienced and familiar first-choice duo have shown weakness in applying Neville’s philosophy then their deputies face a baptism of fire under the heightened pressure of a quarter-final against a quality opposition.
Norway prefer to stay compact in their shape, rather than press from the front, but, although they’re without Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg due to a pay dispute, they are more than capable of causing problems. Barcelona winger Caroline Graham Hansen is a star, with fullbacks Ingrid Wold and Kristine Minde always offering options on the overlap.
There is one thing in England’s favour: fond memories. The Lionesses came from behind to beat Norway 2-1 at the same stage of the 2015 World Cup.
However, the goalscorers that day? The same players who might be forced to watch on from the sidelines: Steph Houghton and Lucy Bronze.