Tuesday 15 October 2019

Jason Burt: 'Balancing ambitions'

Neville focused on World Cup glory but qualification for 2020 Olympics is also priority

England manager Phil Neville. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble
England manager Phil Neville. Photo: REUTERS/Phil Noble

Jason Burt

Now the World Cup really begins. England arrived in Valenciennes in northern France, close to the Belgian border, knowing they are approaching their own checkpoint.

A last-16 tie against Cameroon has resonance for World Cup football when it comes to England, with the last meeting between the two countries coming in the quarter-finals of Italia 90 when two Gary Lineker penalties helped Bobby Robson's side reach the last four. A semi-final place is crucial for Phil Neville and his team. It is, frankly, the minimum requirement.

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Anything short of that will be something of a disaster for England and for the Football Association and not just because it means they will not have matched the impressive achievement in Canada four years ago.

Then it was a pleasant surprise that England made it that far. Now, ranked the third best team in the world, they have to do it. If they do not and do not then finish as one of the top-three European countries in this tournament, they will fail to qualify for next year's Olympics in Tokyo, on behalf of Team GB.

Being one of those three is the only route to the Olympics and while, obviously, the immediate target is winning this tournament, Neville is acutely aware of the importance of Tokyo 2020 and the bigger picture.

If Team GB - who Neville would be nominated to coach - are not at the Olympics, then England would not have a competitive fixture after this World Cup until Euro 2021 kicks off on July 11 that year, given they are hosting the tournament.

The knock-on effect for that could - the FA fears - be a slowing of the gathering momentum around the women's game with regards to the national team. Prestige friendlies, such as facing Germany this November at Wembley, can be arranged, but it feels like it would be a very long time before England would play a meaningful match to rally behind.

There will be a SheBelieves Cup in the United States next year, with England aiming to retain their title, but that is not quite the same.

England's cause may be helped with the expected meeting in the quarter-final between the favourites, the United States, and the hosts, France. If France - who face Brazil today - fall, one of the biggest European rivals are out of the way. England are on course to play the winner of that tie in the semi-finals.

Before facing Japan, who will host the Olympics, in England's last group game, Neville referred to what it all means. "Qualification for the Olympics is huge," he said, admitting that only since he took the job has he realised how much it means.

Yet what he said next was just as significant: "We're focused on one job [winning the World Cup] and the rest will look after itself."

Very true. Neville's immediate task is to negotiate the first-ever knock-out international tie into which he has led a team, with all the attendant pressure that brings.

He will hope to do so with his squad in good shape. Injury-free England have rotated heavily in this tournament - four changes from their first game to their second and eight from their second to their third - using 20 players in all. Only the United States have used more, with all of their outfield players having featured at least once. Neville believes his approach will not only conserve energy but build competitiveness and make every player feel they are a part of this World Cup.

Tournament-management has become a buzz phrase at the FA with England teams in the past having negotiated the group stages but blown up, with fatigue, injuries, lack of a streetwise ability to cope, when the pressure really is on. They have failed to pace themselves.

Neville's approach also, however, opens up the question of what would be his best team and, significantly, does he know it? England's strength is the depth of their squad, but even in that there comes a time to settle on a preferred XI.

Meanwhile, it is a sign of England's level of preparation that Cameroon were the third-placed nation they expected to face in the last 16.

It took a winner with just 11 seconds to go against New Zealand, who beat England in their final warm-up match, for Cameroon to secure that berth.

Even then they were indebted to Chile missing an 85th-minute penalty against Thailand in their last group game that would have sent them through on goal difference. So it will be the Lionesses against the Indomitable Lionesses.

Chelsea Women manager Emma Hayes has suggested Cameroon, despite being ranked 46th in the world, could prove to be the trickiest opponent England could have faced at this stage, even though this is only their second World Cup. In 2015, they also reached the last 16, where they were beaten by China.

An added factor is that the temperature inside the 22,500-capacity Stade du Hainaut today is expected to hit 30C by the time England kick off.

Even so, England should win to set up what would be a quarter-final back in Le Havre against either Norway or Australia, who would both be dangerous opponents. Dangerous but, Neville argues, not daunting.

"I think I've seen nothing in the tournament that gives me fear... I've seen nothing to make me go: 'Oh dear me, if we play them we're going to struggle,'" Neville said.

That might be right but, while England qualified with a 100pc record, they have, in truth, not scaled the heights of some of their rivals in terms of performance.

That has to start now if England are to achieve both of their goals.


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