The Lyon connection: World Cup reunion for Bronze and Kumagai
They are colleagues at club level in the team that dominates European women's football, but Saki Kumagai and Lucy Bronze will be coming up against one another at a second consecutive World Cup when Japan and England clash on Wednesday.
In 2015, it was Kumagai's Japan who emerged victorious in the semi-finals in Canada, a stoppage-time Laura Bassett own goal giving them a 2-1 win over Bronze's England on their way to a 5-2 defeat in the final against the United States.
Prior to that, it was England who triumphed 2-0 in the 2011 group stage in Germany, but on that occasion Japan went on to win the trophy while England went out in the quarter-finals.
That was before Bronze had made her senior international debut and the right-back is confident England are better equipped than ever to go all the way after several near misses in recent years.
"We know we are good enough to beat any team," Bronze, 27, told AFP in an interview before the tournament.
England's build-up to this World Cup included winning the SheBelieves Cup in the United States in March, with results including a 3-0 victory against Japan.
"We are learning how to win, we are getting used to winning, we want to win and we are hungry for the final, and all these things mean it feels like the perfect time to go into this tournament and change history in England and in women's football."
The pain of 2015 was felt in a very literal sense by Bronze, who was ill and was taken off in the second half.
"I was throwing up pretty much all day. I think it was food poisoning," she told British media. "It was very blurry. It wasn't the sickness that stopped me, it was cramps. My body just went into shock."
Much has changed since that 2015 encounter. Bronze left Manchester City to sign for Lyon in 2017, teaming up with Kumagai to win back-to-back French titles and Champions Leagues.
Both started the 2018 Champions League final win against Wolfsburg, but Kumagai was only a substitute as Lyon retained their title last month by defeating Barcelona in Budapest.
Lyon have won the last four Champions Leagues and Kumagai has been there for all of them, having signed for the French club in 2013.
- The old head -
At 28, she has already won 106 caps for her country and scored the winning penalty in the 2011 World Cup final.
Centre-back and captain Kumagai is an old head in a young Japanese squad which has been fashioned with an eye on next year's Olympics in Tokyo. Their starting line-up in the 2-1 win over Scotland featured six players aged 23 or under.
"I can't wait to play against my teammate," Kumagai said when asked about facing Bronze, along with England's future Lyon star, Nikita Parris.
"We know how each other plays, of course, but maybe we won't be coming up directly against one another too often. Nevertheless, I will help my Japanese teammates, tell them how Lucy plays."
Both nations are already certain to be in the knockout phase in France before the Group D finale, but there is still plenty at stake.
Phil Neville's England need to avoid defeat to secure top spot in the section and thereby give themselves -- in theory at least -- a more favourable path towards the semi-finals.
Japan are certain to go through at least as one of the best third-placed teams but the carrot is there for them to leapfrog England with a victory.
"Fortunately we have a chance, so we will try of course to win the game," said Kumagai, refuting any suggestion that her team might take their foot off the pedal on the Cote d'Azur.
? 2019 AFP