England women eager to shine in spotlight against dangerous Scots
Nice (France) (AFP)
Phil Neville and his England women's team are determined not to wilt under the pressure of expectation as they enter the World Cup as one of the favourites going into their opening game against Scotland in Nice on Sunday.
England are tipped to compete with holders the United States and hosts France to win the month-long competition, just as interest in the women's game reaches unprecedented levels.
That brings with it a new challenge for a side who lost in the semi-finals of the 2015 World Cup and Euro 2017, before former Manchester United player Neville became coach in early 2018.
"If we want to be successful, forget the fancy football that we have been playing for the last 16 months, I want the togetherness and spirit of 2015, and then I am almost certain that we will be successful," Neville told reporters on Saturday.
"If we don't then we will end up with egg on our faces, but that is the challenge for us."
England will also face Argentina and former winners Japan in Group D, but failing to make it to the knockout phase is unthinkable for a team who won the prestigious SheBelieves Cup in the United States earlier this year.
"For us as players, we know that there is a lot more interest in our team, and obviously with the results and the success that we have had with the SheBelieves, of course that brings a little bit of pressure and a little bit of expectation," said the captain, Steph Houghton.
There is perhaps something just a little ironic about the fact that their campaign begins here on the Cote d'Azur, in the ground where England's men suffered one of their worst ever defeats, losing to Iceland at Euro 2016.
There will be fewer English supporters in the stadium this time, though, with FIFA confirming to AFP that, as of Saturday evening, 15,550 tickets had been sold for Sunday's game at a venue which holds more than twice that number. Tickets were on sale for as little as nine euros (£8; $10).
In total, just shy of 30,000 tickets have been sold to British fans for the World Cup.
That indicates how far women's football still has to travel, despite the undoubted progress made.
- 'Huge changes' -
Significant progress has also been made by Scotland, who are appearing at their first World Cup, with memories still fresh from their 6-0 humbling at the hands of England at Euro 2017.
The Scots are much-changed since then, with former Arsenal boss Shelley Kerr having since taken over as coach and several key players who missed that game set to feature this time.
Arsenal's Kim Little and Jen Beattie, two players with over 100 caps, are among those who did not play in 2017 but are available now, and Scotland have the air of dangerous outsiders.
"Probably of all the teams we've got in the group stages this is our toughest game by far. I think Scotland can go a long way in the competition with the quality they've got," said Neville.
Leading Scotland into a World Cup puts Kerr in a privileged position. After all, the men have not been to a major tournament since 1998.
"Obviously it is our first World Cup, we are the first Scottish team to play at a World Cup for over two decades," said Kerr, who this week received an honour from Queen Elizabeth II for services to the sport.
Asked whether 2017 gave extra motivation to the Scots, captain Rachel Corsie added: "There has been a huge number of changes over the last two years. Shelley has come in, individuals have moved clubs, there has been a huge amount of growth and development with the squad as a whole. It is a whole new tournament."
While Scotland have a fully fit squad, Neville revealed defender Demi Stokes and striker Toni Duggan would both need late fitness tests.
? 2019 AFP