World Cup football can not come quickly enough for England’s Lionesses. With a summer in France looming ahead, and Phil Neville’s side hitting a rich vein of form at the SheBelieves Cup, football may finally be coming home.
For those out of the know, the SheBelieves Cup derives from the SheBelieves social media campaign that has stemmed from US soccer. The aim of the campaign, as stated by the English FA’s website is to: “Inspire young girls and women and encourage them to accomplish their goals and dream, within sport or otherwise.”
The invitational tournament clearly has admirable intentions that we can all get behind. England’s intentions on the pitch were evidently just as positive.
The Lionesses, captained by Manchester City’s Steph Houghton, knew they faced a tough few fixtures as they came up against Brazil, the USA, and Japan respectively.
However, Neville seemed unfazed by the talent they faced as he focused on gaining improving performances without being too “bothered… whether we won or lost”. In the end it didn’t matter as the ex-Manchester United player wouldn’t have to worry about losing anyway.
England’s first match was against the tournament’s lowest ranked side, Brazil. A 2-1 win got the invitational off to a brilliant start, but things were only going to get better.
The 2nd March brought with it a thrilling encounter, the Lionesses clashed with the mighty USA. A classy touch was added by the Americans, who wore inspirational women’s names, sporting or not, on their shirts to showcase the reasons for the tournament.
US star Carli Lloyd remarked on initiative by saying: “Malala is someone who stood up for what she believed in even though she could be killed for it.
“Even after being shot and almost dying she has continued to fight for and inspire women around the world,” in response to being asked why she chose to wear the name of Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.
The game that ensued was nothing short of scintillating. After falling behind to a goal from Megan Rapinoe, England’s Manchester City core dug in deep. Steph Houghton and Nikita Parris levelled and sent England in front.
It was left to a 67th minute equaliser from Tobin Heath to keep the tournament alive, meaning going into the final game the USA, England, and Japan could have all come away victorious.
England knew a win against Asia’s most prolific footballing force would seal top spot in the group and land Phil Neville his first piece of managerial silverware. Something he himself proclaimed to be allusive as “you don’t get many chances to get your hands on a trophy.”
When the line-ups were announced, it was revealed that England made eight changes to the starting line-up that grabbed an impressive point against the world number one. Was this to be a misjudgement from Neville or a showcase of extreme squad depth in the English set up?
Questions were soon answered with Lucy Staniforth firing England in front with an outside the box effort just 12 minutes in. The Lionesses piled on the pressure, eager for a larger lead.
11 minutes later and the Lionesses had doubled their lead. This time it was a header from Karen Carney. The cross from Jodie Taylor was typical, she was lighting up the pitch, grabbing the first two assists.
Japan, all at sea, couldn’t handle the English pressure that seemed so confident and self-assured. Nerves didn’t seem to exist in the English set up, with the replacements seeming to fit right in to the game plan.
Half an hour into the match and perhaps the best goal of the day was scored. Kiera Walsh’s brilliant assist helped Beth Mead grab herself a goal that she took calmly.
Walsh’s reverse pass showed us why Neville feels she is “probably the best” at what she does in Midfield at the moment. Neville admitted, “I’ve been really tough on her” as he talked about leaving her out of the squad in the past, but clearly in the long-term the decisions made by Neville, and Walsh’s reactions to these has proven a great success.
As the second half rolled around it would be wrong to say that Japan didn’t work their way back into the game. However, it seems that was due more to a dropping of conviction from the English eleven, rather than a rejuvenated Japanese fight-back.
A fine save from Carly Telford and a wasted chance by Yuka Momiki kept the three-goal lead in the second half, giving England a precious clean sheet, but even more importantly presenting them with the SheBelieves Cup.
The tournament was vital in World Cup preparations, as Phil Neville may now have one eye on the biggest prize in women’s football.
England have been drawn in a group with Scotland, Argentina, and the Japan side they just dispatched of 3-0, and with Neville stating: “We just keep listening to the USA, Japan and Brazil talk about how good we are”.
Spurred on by SheBelieves performances seen across the pond, the World Cup final on 7th May at the Stade de Lyonnais must surely be the goal for this extremely talented group of players.
With friendlies against Canada, Spain, Denmark, and New Zealand all to come before the World Cup kicks off, the next few months of English international women’s football are going to be both exciting and intriguing for all involved.