CHRISTIAN RADNEDGE in PARIS: England have been handed a tough group in the FIFA Women’s World Cup finals draw but manager Phil Neville is still fully confident that his side can go on and win the tournament for the first time ever.
Following a mouthwatering opening Group D tie against neighbours Scotland in Nice on June 9, the Lionesses will face Argentina and then Japan who knocked them out at the semi-final stage in the previous World Cup in Canada.
While England and Japan are the clear group favourites, ranked fourth and eighth in the world respectively, Neville was under no illusion that both Scotland and Argentina would be fired up by certain aspects of history between the nations.
“Every game has a special meaning,” the former Manchester United defender told reporters. “The third game you think about Japan playing against a team with their sights on winning the World Cup, the England-Argentina game has a special historical meaning for us as well and then there’s the first game against Scotland.
“If we’re going to go to a World Cup, you want the biggest and best occasions and I think that game on June 9 will be a special occasion, a sell-out crowd against one of our biggest rivals…
“We’re going to need to be at our absolute best and produce form that we’ve probably not produced since I’ve become manager.”
Neville, who was appointed as England coach in January, won 59 caps as a player but did not ever go to a World Cup with the national side. He was confident however that his squad could surpass their record achievement three years ago in Canada when they finished third.
“If I stood here and said we want to go to France and win bronze I think I would have 28 players all texting me saying ‘you’re not the right manager for us’,” the 41-year-old said. “My players are ambitious, they want to be pushed and challenged and they want to try and win a World Cup and that’s what I was brought in to do.”
Neville’s appointment after the departure of previous coach Mark Sampson was not met with universal approval, particuarly as it was his first full managerial role having assisted David Moyes at Manchester United and his brother Gary at Valencia.
However, since then has guided England to second place at the SheBelieves Cup, their best ever finish at the four-team tournament, and to a dominant World Cup qualifying campaign winning seven out of eight matches, scoring 29 goals and conceding once.
Neville’s history as a ‘winner’ with United where he won six Premier League titles and a Champions League crown was part of the reason for his selection by the FA. When he was asked if he thought England could triumph next year, he simply replied “Yes. I think we can.”
If they do not emerge victorious in July, there is at least the European Championship which will be hosted in England in 2021, the year that Neville is currently contracted to.