Phil Neville will resist the temptation to rest key players against Japan on Wednesday night as England play their final Group D game, knowing a draw will be enough to secure top spot.
There is a case – albeit a controversial one – for relaxing a little and not worrying too much about succumbing to a defeat which would clear the path to second place in the group and the potential avoidance of France or the USA in the semi-final.
Neville is having none of it. “I’m going to play my best team. I want to finish top and win the game,” said England’s manager. “I’ve seen a massive surge in momentum in the squad from winning our first two games. If we keep winning we’ll be successful. I haven’t even thought about trying to finish second and avoiding certain teams.”
More immediately Japan promise to provide an intriguing litmus test of England’s evolution into a possession-based team. Asako Takakura’s side are not only technically superior to the Lionesses’s two previous World Cup opponents, Scotland and Argentina, but they won the tournament in 2011 and finished runners-up to the USA four years later in Canada, when they narrowly beat England in the semi-finals. At their best Takura’s players turn matches into a kaleidoscopic blur of high-speed passing and even faster movement.
Avoid defeat by them and England will head towards a round-of-16 game with one of the best third-placed finishers – possibly New Zealand, China or Cameroon – in Valenciennes on Sunday. Although the Lionesses were eliminated by Japan in that semi-final four years ago in Edmonton, Neville believes the class of 2015 have not had sufficient praise. “People underestimate the quality of that team,” he said. “Mark Sampson and the players deserve unbelievable respect. I don’t like people playing down the quality of that team or the manager’s contribution.”
Neville had turned momentarily spiky and his side have already seen two sides of the coach in France. There is the on-pitch perfectionist demanding an ambitious, high-speed possession game and the emotionally intelligent, ever-thoughtful, off-field mentor.
“Phil’s man-management skills have been unbelievable,” said the striker Toni Duggan who, having recovered from injury, is expected to start on Wednesday night. “I think that’s one of the biggest positives I can ever say about Phil. He’s been amazing.”
Following last Friday’s 1-0 win against Argentina Fran Kirby burst into tears at the final whistle. Neville, though, had done his research and knew it would have been her late mother’s birthday. He was also acutely aware that Carly Telford recently lost her own mother to cancer.
His response was to draw the entire team into a huddle and talk about how proud those now relocated “upstairs” – including his own late father – would have been of England’s progress. “Phil handled Carly and Fran amazingly the other night,” said Duggan. “It shows how much he cares about the players. He puts an arm round you and it means the world. He helped me through my injury and hopefully now I can repay him out on the pitch.
“He’s really emotional and sentimental. It’s nice to see that side of him because I watched him when I was younger and growing up in Liverpool just thinking, ‘Oh, I hate Phil Neville and Gary Neville – they play for Man United.’ But he’s so nice with you. Phil’s really caring, he’s lovely, he’s thoughtful, but he demands high standards as well and you can see why he got to the top, because you don’t always get to the top being really nice. He’s demanded a lot from us as players but we’ve taken it in our stride.”
England’s players trained in Cannes for Wednesday’s game against Japan in nearby Nice. Photograph: Sébastien Nogier/EPA
A psychologist is travelling with the squad and Barcelona’s Duggan feels she benefited from a private chat with her after sustaining an injury during their first training session in Nice.
Some players lean heavily on the mind guru – whom the FA prefers not to name – others barely speak to her but England’s entire environment as they move from hotel to hotel on their journey round France is designed to make them feel immediately at home.
Every player has been equipped with a personalised mobile phone case, complete with her name and shirt number. “We’ve had a few gifts actually,” Duggan added. “We’ve also each had a little necklace off Phil. It says France ’19. I’m hoping I’ll still be wearing it in a couple of months.”
Meanwhile, continuing a theme which was started two years ago at the team’s Utrecht base during Euro 2017 in the Netherlands, each player’s hotel room is secretly decorated with photographs of family, partners, friends and pets before they check in.
On the pitch Neville has looked after his squad with a less-is-more approach to training. “We’ve been very brave,” he said. “We’ve cut it back to 40-minute sessions but, if you train hard now, you pay for it later. The easiest thing is to train, the hardest thing is to give them breaks away.”