Sometimes there is a lot to be said for achieving the bare minimum expected. It is not unusual for an England team to underwhelm at a major international tournament, for example. Having secured at least a semi-final place, Phil Neville and his players now know they will not let anyone down.
After the victory over Norway, the 2019 Women’s World Cup will be remembered, at worst, as a modest success. At best, it could yet end with the historic achievement of being crowned world champions, and what Neville refers to as a ‘legacy moment’ in the growth of the women’s game.
“I think we’re getting to that legacy moment,” he said late in Le Havre on Thursday night. “12 months ago, we set out objectives. All I wanted them to say was win the World Cup. But Leah [Williamson] said they wanted more than that, to create a name people would relate to: badass women. They were thinking bigger and that knocked me in my stride.”
And England have every right to dream big. The core of Neville’s side – the likes of Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton and Jill Scott – are the first England players to reach three semi-finals in three successive major tournaments, in both the women’s and men’s game. These “bad-ass women” belong in the world’s elite. That is now indisputable.
But at the same time, it should still be remembered that this was the minimum expected. Scotland, Argentina and Cameroon had an average world ranking of 34th. Japan mixed pedigree and potential, but had few top players in their prime. Norway’s budget for women’s football is greater than their men’s this year, yet still some 14 times smaller than England’s.
The final week of the tournament will put England among rivals who can match their talent and funding. It will be the true test. And to his credit, Neville appreciates he has achieved nothing yet. “We’re a team that has lost in the semi-finals of the last two major tournaments,” he was at pains to point out. “I was brought in to get us through a semi-final.”
Whether it is the United States or France in Lyon on Tuesday night, both will have seen signs of encouragement in England’s performance, impressive though it was. There is a common thread in their displays at this World Cup to date: short periods of play where sloppiness creeps in, composure is lost and their opponents waste chances to punish them.
Thursday night was England’s fourth clean sheet in a row, though the data suggests they could easily conceded two or three times in those games. Japan, Cameroon an Norway all threatened, usually in short, sharp spells. Houghton’s awareness has bailed her team-mates out on several occasions.
And still, three weeks in, we are waiting to see how Neville’s side will react to going behind at this World Cup. The same happened up until the last four at the Euros two years ago, until Vivianne Miedema’s goal for the Netherlands precipitated a 3-0 collapse.
Perhaps we will never need to find out. Maybe Karen Bardsley remains unbeaten until victory in the Lyon final, though that seems unlikely. After a relatively straightforward path through the tournament up to this point, it is suddenly about to get a whole lot harder.
England are easily one of the best four teams in the world. The next 10 days will decide whether they are anything more than that.
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