Women’s World Cup: England aim for third successive semi-final against Norway

Steph Houghton took part in training on Wednesday

Steph Houghton (right) took part in training on Wednesday in scorching temperatures in northern France

Phil Neville’s Lionesses will aim to be the first England team to reach a third successive major tournament semi-final when they face Norway in the Women’s World Cup last eight on Thursday.

England made the last four at the 2015 World Cup and Euro 2017, with 20,000 fans set for the north coast city of Le Havre amid a French heatwave.

Head coach Neville played down the heat but said first-choice centre-backs Steph Houghton and Mille Bright are both “doubts” against a team England beat 2-1 at the 2015 World Cup.

Norway are ranked 12th in the world, nine places below England, and are without striker Ada Hegerberg, who has chosen not to represent her country despite being voted as the world’s best player.

The Lyon striker, 23, has not played for Norway since 2017 after raising concerns over the sport’s governance in her home country.

Adding to the significance of the match is potential qualification for the 2020 Olympics. Neville’s side must beat the 1995 World Cup winners if they want a Great Britain team to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

Only the top three European nations qualify from the World Cup, but with seven of the eight quarter-finalists from Europe, England might need to repeat their third-placed finish in 2015 to seal a place in Japan.

While temperatures in parts of France are set to reach upwards of 40C, the temperature in Le Havre is forecast to be 24C for the 20:00 BST kick-off, with the game live across the BBC.

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We plan for moments like this – Neville

Doubts over Houghton and Bright

England have already beaten Scotland, Argentina, Japan and Cameroon at the World Cup, which is former Manchester United player Neville’s first major tournament.

But they could be without Houghton, 31, who injured her ankle in the Lionesses’ last-16 win over Cameroon and Bright, 25, who has a sickness bug which Neville said was “going through the camp a little bit”.

Houghton, who took part in training on Wednesday, is one of three players, along with Lucy Bronze and Jill Scott, to start every game of the tournament so far.

The Manchester City defender has partnered Chelsea player Bright in central defence in three of England’s four games.

But Neville said he was “relaxed” about the defenders’ potential replacements, Leah Williamson and Abbie McManus, who have both already played at the World Cup and have featured several times in Neville’s team, including at the SheBelieves Cup.

“You guys have had an obsession with my rotation for the last 18 months… but it’s for moments like this,” the England head coach told reporters.

“We can bring in two people who know the system and the have utter belief and confidence in each other. It’s a seamless transition.”

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‘We will embrace pressure’ – Neville

Thursday’s fixture is a repeat of their last-16 tie four years ago, with the victors set to face either France or the United States in Lyon on Tuesday, 2 July.

But England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley said: “We’ve never had more belief in this group that we do today.

“We are the most prepared team. We are the most resilient team.

“We’ve gathered momentum throughout the group stages, experiencing several different tests. I don’t think we have met our full potential yet and we have a very good chance of doing that [on Thursday].

“Three or four years ago we were crying out to get to these levels of attention and visibility. When we get here we’re not going to back off and say it’s a bit nerve-wracking.”

Neville said his players would “embrace” the pressure.

“In the past, you’d probably shield the players from a fear of failure – but my girls don’t have that,” he said.

“We are going to embrace it. You have an unbelievable set of human beings who are now exactly where they want to be, where they’ve dreamed of – and they won’t back off. You will see that on the pitch.”


Neville said he “hasn’t seen a better striker” at the World Cup

‘White has become a ruthless predator like Van Nistelrooy’

Neville also praised striker Ellen White, who has scored four goals in three games at the World Cup, saying she had developed from a “grafter” into a “predator” like former Manchester United and Netherlands striker Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The new Manchester City forward is in the race for the Golden Boot and sits one goal behind Australia’s Sam Kerr and United States forward Alex Morgan.

Neville said the 30-year-old has benefited from staying closer to the goal, adding he “hadn’t seen anyone better” at the World Cup.

“Ellen has taken her game to another level,” he said. “At the European Championship two years ago, she played left wing. People thought she was a grafter, a worker. Now she is one of the top centre-forwards at the tournament.

“We’ve said to her to save her energy for when the big moments come, when the ball drops in the box, and she has learned the hard way. For six months she looked at me as if I had a horn in my head because I’d tell her to stop running. She’d find herself at outside left or outside right.

“Now she is like a Van Nistelrooy, or an Alan Shearer, or a Michael Owen. She has turned from a hard-working grafter into a predator. That’s been the biggest change.”

Norway ‘not scared of England’

Norway finished second in Group B behind hosts France, before overcoming Australia on penalties in an entertaining last-16 tie on Saturday.

The 1995 champions have featured in all eight editions of this tournament, and despite their inferior ranking, coach Martin Sjogren said: “We’re not scared of England.”

He added: “We have a lot of respect for the opponent, but we also have a strong team.”

The Norwegians’ only absentee through injury is forward Emilie Bosshard Haavi, who underwent surgery on a torn meniscus in her knee on Tuesday.

New Barcelona signing Caroline Graham Hansen and Chelsea duo Maren Mjelde and Maria Thorisdottir are among the team’s star players.

Fifa are expecting between 18,600 and 20,500 fans to attend the game, although “limited numbers of tickets” are still for sale.