Getting to know the Lionesses ahead of the 2019 FIFA World Cup

By Ella Jerman

The most prestigious trophy in women’s football is up for grabs again.

With the 2019 Women’s World Cup less than a month away, England will have another go at capturing the hearts of the nation as they embark on the mission to bring football home.

The men’s side reached the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in 28 years last summer, but this time it’s over to the Lionesses to regrip the nation with football fever.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Lionesses before the tournament kicks off in France on June 7.

What happened last time?

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England reached the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time in 2015 after securing a historic victory against hosts Canada in the quarter-final, but they exited the tournament in heart-breaking fashion as Laura Bassett’s semi-final stoppage-time own goal sent holders Japan through to the final against the USA.

Japan took the lead through an Aya Miyama penalty, before Fara Williams – England’s all-time most capped player – drew level from the spot herself just eight minutes later.

The Lionesses looked on track to take the world champions to extra time, but as the clock trickled into the second minute of stoppage-time, Notts County defender Bassett diverted a clearance over Karen Bardsley’s head only to look on helplessly as the ball hit the crossbar and cross the line, ending England’s dream of reaching their first-ever World Cup final.

The Lionesses’ ‘Road to France’ 

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The Lionesses have gone from strength to strength since the 2015 World Cup semi-final defeat to Japan and are raring to go one step further in this year’s edition.

Since Phil Neville was appointed manager in January 2018, they have enjoyed an unforeseen spell of success, winning ten of his seventeen games in charge, losing just three.

The Lionesses finished second at the 2018 SheBelieves Cup where they defeated France 4-1 before they breezed through World Cup qualification, conceding just one goal in eight games.

Despite falling short in recent international tournaments, the Lionesses made a deafeningly loud statement of intent by winning the 2019 SheBelieves Cup.

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Phil Neville’s side started the tournament well, beating Brazil 2-1 before drawing 2-2 with the current World Champions USA in Nashville to leave them joint top with Japan at the top of the standings ahead of the final fixture.

The Lionesses arrived in Tampa knowing that a win would be enough to see them lift the trophy for the first time and proved they were up to the task by racing into a three-goal lead inside half an hour with Lucy Staniforth, Karen Carney and Beth Mead getting on the scoresheet.

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It may have been a friendly tournament and Japan had put out a weakened side, but the result is still a telling indicator of how far the Lionesses have come since losing out to the same side in the 2015 semi-final.

And the entertaining, attacking team performance was certainly one that excited fans ahead of the summer’s World Cup in France where England, now ranked third in the FIFA World Rankings, are considered among the favourites.

Group D  

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

England’s progress over the past year has been nothing short of explosive and entertaining and they will enter this summer’s tournament full of confidence after winning the SheBelieves Cup, but first, they need to make it out of one of the World Cup’s toughest groups.

England were drawn in Group D alongside Scotland, Argentina and a familiar World Cup foe, Japan.

Here’s a closer look at our group opponents.

Scotland

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England begin their World Cup campaign against Scotland in Nice on Saturday June 9.

Scotland have made history by qualifying for their first FIFA Women’s World Cup, but there is no reason for five-time competitors England to be complacent.

Shelley Kerr’s side boast plenty of big-name WSL players, including Arsenal’s Kim Little, Lisa Evans and Jennifer Beattie, Chelsea Player of the Year Erin Cuthbert and Manchester City star Caroline Weir.

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Having come within touching distance of the 2015 World Cup only to lose in the play-offs, Scotland will be out to prove the doubters wrong this summer.

The debutants guaranteed their ticket to this year’s finals by topping their group on the last day of qualifying by beating Albania 2-1.

From the more experienced defensive rocks Emma Mitchell and Jennifer Beattie to young attacking starlets Erin Cuthbert and Caroline Weir, Scotland have a squad bless with both youth and experience and it could be the most familiar faces who prove the biggest handful for the Lionesses in Nice.

Argentina

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Arguably one of the most inexperienced and under-funded sides present at the tournament, Argentina will look to derail England’s path when they face the Lionesses on Friday June 14 in Le Havre.

Argentina have never made it past the group stage of the World Cup before, but this time round just qualifying for the tournament has been a rather special feat for a country where women footballers have long been treated as second-class citizens compared to the men.

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Carlos Borrello’s side achieved qualification despite a two-year hiatus from playing football. The national team went on strike in September 2017 against structural sexism in the sport industry, meaning they played no fixtures, had no coach and fell completely out of the world rankings.

Since they resumed in 2017, Argentina fought hard to finish third at the Copa America which qualified them for the CONCACAF-CONMEBOL play-off. They defeated Panama 5-1 across two legs in November 2018 to qualify for the World Cup.

With the Argentine Football Association announcing the launch of the country’s first professional women’s league in March, the national team will be determined to build on their trailblazing success in France.

Japan

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They are, perhaps, one of the teams England least wanted to be drawn against, but the Lionesses will face the 2011 champions and 2015 finalist Japan once again in their final group stage fixture on Wednesday June 19.

Former midfielder Asako Takakura is in charge of Japan, one of the most renowned women’s sides in the world, as they prepare to embark on their eighth successive Women’s World Cup campaign.

The squad has evolved significantly since the 2015 final defeat to the USA as Takakura brought in a host of new faces in an attempt to revamp the senior side, forward Kumi Yokoyama being one of the players making her senior World Cup debut this summer.

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The results have been mixed. Japan lost three consecutive matches to the USA, Brazil and Australia in the Tournament of Nations last summer, before maintaining an unbeaten title-winning Asian Games campaign in August.

But, no matter what faces we see in the squad, there is no doubt that Japan will continue to pose a threat with their quick, slick passing game as they attempt to progress past the group stage for the third consecutive tournament 

Players to watch

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With the tournament a matter of weeks away, of course we have to look at who’s in the England squad.

This year, the squad was announced in rather unique fashion, with a series of individual celebrity messages on Twitter, including videos from Prince William, David Beckham and Alan Shearer, letting the players know they were going to France.

Steph Houghton will captain a 23-strong squad which includes World Cup debutants Keira Walsh, Leah Williamson and Lucy Staniforth alongside the experienced Karen Carney and Jill Scott, both heading to their fourth tournament.

England manager Phil Neville said he is taking a squad ‘full of world-class players’ to France this summer, but who are the key players to look out for?

Nikita Parris

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Well, her goal scoring record speaks for itself. The pacey winger has scored 19 goals in 19 league matches this season, edging ahead of former England striker Eniola Aluko to become the FA WSL’s all-time top scorer.

Parris, who won the Football Writers’ Association’s Women’s Footballer of the Year award last month, led the Lionesses with six goals in qualifying.

In addition to individual accolades, the 25-year old secured silverware with Manchester City this season, winning both the Continental and FA Cup.

She’ll be determined to add one more trophy to the list with England this summer ahead of her first season with Lyon next season.

Fran Kirby

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Described as a ‘mini Messi’ by Neville’s predecessor Mark Sampson, Chelsea’s Fran Kirby is another player to keep an eye on in England’s front line.

Kirby shot onto the international stage when she scored against Mexico in Canada in 2015 and since then she has cemented her place as a true fans’ favourite.

Her 2018/19 season has been blighted by injury, but the 25-year-old has still managed to notch 9 goals in just 16 appearances.

We’ve seen her hit superlative form in the past, the skilled striker scoring 25 in all competitions during the 2017/18 season to win PFA Player’s Player of the Year and the Football Writers’ Women’s Footballer of the Year awards.

Unplayable when fit, Phil Neville proclaimed Kirby’s skill to six-time World Player of the Year Marta last November: “I’d take my no.10 over Brazil’s no.10, that’s for sure.”

Beth Mead

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Having scored 77 goals in 78 appearances for Sunderland, many knew Beth Mead was going to be a special player.

The 23-year-old has rapidly risen through the ranks at both domestic and international level, earning her first call-up to the national team in April last year after impressing for the Women’s Super League leaders Arsenal.

Mead cemented her World Cup spot by scoring five times in her first 12 England appearances, including her signature ‘CROT’ finish to secure victory against Brazil at the 2019 SheBelieves Cup which trended on Twitter in the UK for the next two days.

She’s fast, she’s fearless and her rapid rise to top form will certainly give Phil Neville a headache when choosing his starting eleven.

Having just won the Women’s Super League with Arsenal, there is a feeling that a starting spot at a major tournament will make Mead into one of the most sought-after players in the women’s game.

Georgia Stanway

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Few players have managed to go to a World Cup at just 20 years of age, but there is no doubt Georgia Stanway deserves her place in England’s 23-strong squad.

She may be the youngest Lioness on the plane, but the Cumbria-born forward has already proved she Is capable of stepping up to the big stage.

If this has been Stanway’s breakthrough season, it has been quite the start. She finished tied-fourth in the WSL top scorer rankings with 11 goals – level with Lionesses’ legend Fara Williams – before playing a star role in Manchester City’s FA Cup final win over West Ham, scoring the second goal of the 3-0 victory at Wembley.

READ: FIFA World Cup: The Scotland team hoping to captivate a nation

She has already played a pivotal role at a World Cup in France, scoring six times as England went on to win the bronze medal at the Under-20s edition last year.

Like Mead, she’s fearless, comfortable in a number of attacking positions and eager to pounce on every goal scoring opportunity.

As the tournament approaches, the 20-year-old City ace could have hardly produced a more persuasive starting spot audition. The star of the future will be gunning to impress in France.

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