Preparations for France 2019 are stepping up and at least six teams can win it, England and Australia among them
With fewer than 100 days until the World Cup kicks off in Paris, preparations are in their final stages. This is a big week in women’s football, with international teams involved in the Algarve Cup, the Cyprus Cup and the SheBelieves Cup in the United States, where England are competing. These tournaments are key for building momentum and confidence, and for helping the coaches decide which 23 players will go to the World Cup.
Phil Neville said before flying to the US that “the door is not shut on any player with ambitions of making the squad” but it’s certainly closing fast. By now I expect he will have a good idea of what his first-choice team will be, and most of the back-up players he is planning to take. Some of them, such as Seattle’s Jodie Taylor and Chelsea’s Fran Kirby, have not been playing regularly for their clubs, so it will be important to build their confidence on the international stage.
England got a fantastic result in their first game against Brazil, winning 2-1 after going 1-0 down from a dubious penalty. The first-half performance was nervy and sloppy with lots of possession lost in defensive and midfield areas, but in the second half there was more urgency, and the midfield and forwards won the ball back higher up the pitch, leading to crossing opportunities which the Brazil goalkeeper struggled to deal with. This type of positive reaction will be needed in abundance during difficult matches at the World Cup. A second victory over Brazil in five months will also give England a massive morale boost, and the knowledge they can beat the other top teams, even when not at their best.
England go into this World Cup with the pressure of expectation to win the tournament, which we didn’t have in 2015 in Canada. They will be among the favourites but, like in the men’s competition last year, there are a lot of teams who will travel with genuine title hopes. Gone are the days when you thought only Germany or USA could win it.
There are half a dozen teams I think could lift the trophy, with USA, France, Japan, Australia, England and the Netherlands in with a good chance. Germany and Canada were among the six top seeds and could come through the pack but I wouldn’t put them among my favourites. Germany have changed manager since the 2017 European Championship but they limped through that tournament and I’m not convinced they have the cutting edge. John Herdman left Canada’s women’s team last year to become manager of their men’s side, and without his huge influence they remain in transition.
I’m particularly intrigued to see how France get on. They have so much talent but though they won the SheBelieves Cup last year they never seem to get over the line in major tournaments. Psychologically they can be fragile, so it will be really interesting to see if home support strengthens them, or if they struggle with the additional pressure of being the host nation.
Australia are ranked No 6 in the world but I think they’ve got a great chance. They have had to overcome some upheaval this year but they have a great squad, excellent fitness levels, are strong in defence and they have arguably the best striker in the world in Sam Kerr. I play with a lot of the Italian national team players at Juventus, and I’d love to see them do well, but with Australia and Brazil in their group it isn’t going to be easy for them.
Once this week’s international competitions are over the players will go back to their clubs and focus on the conclusion to the league campaigns. The end of the season is in sight but it’s still far enough away that you can put the World Cup to the back of your mind. Once you get to the final weeks of the season, into April and May, that’s when the excitement really kicks in.
There does come a time, in the final weeks before a big tournament, when you become conscious as a player of the need to avoid injury. As a forward it is always a bit easier to avoid the kind of challenges that can cause impact injuries. If you’re running through on goal, there are two months until the World Cup, it’s a 50‑50 ball and some crazy keeper’s coming out and is about to take your leg off, I think a forward who’s wise enough will protect themselves. We can be tackled but referees are there to police dangerous challenges. Forwards are protected by the laws of the game and the way it’s played, while defenders and midfielders have to throw themselves about a bit more.
My own preparations for the World Cup are also in full swing. I’ve been out of the England team for three years, so I’m well adjusted to not being part of the squad, but I will be involved in a different way. My focus now is on another passion of mine: the media work.
Having played in three World Cups I’ve had fabulous experiences and opportunities, and another has opened for me over the past three years – working at major international tournaments and being right in the heart of the action as a pundit. I will be preparing as seriously as if I was in the England team, watching the opposition, trying to identify strengths and weaknesses, the tactics and personalities. It will be my job to know all the stuff that people at home might not know. This week I will be watching everything I can, as the squads gather around the world. It will soon be summer, and the time is going to fly.