Friendly tournaments do not generally warrant much attention. The sponsored mini cup competitions that clubs sign up for in pre-season are a prime example of games that have very little bearing on, well, anything. The US-hosted SheBelieves Cup, though, is seen a little differently generally, as national teams pit themselves against the world champions in their own back yard. This year, for the Lionesses, March’s tournament is about more than bragging rights and the confidence boost of beating the best. Here’s why …
Lack of competitive action
Phil Neville has said a lack of competitive action is one of the reasons for the Lionesses’ poor form. The team’s World Cup semi-final defeat by USA kickstarted a run of five games without a win and the team have struggled to shake off their World Cup hangover for meaningless friendlies. The SheBelieves Cup, albeit a friendly competition, is the closest the team will get to games that matter.
The cup is a critical part of Phil Neville’s plans this year because the manager has only seven months until the Olympics kick off in Japan. As Euro 2021 hosts England have skipped qualifying and Team GB do not have to take part in Olympic qualifiers because England finished in the top three European nations at the World Cup. By the time a ball is kicked in Tokyo Neville’s players will have gone a year without competitive international football. It is not ideal.
Size of Olympic squad
It is vital Neville gets his team out of their slump. Two tight wins in eight games is not good enough for a side aiming to be the best in the world, nor good enough of players fighting for a place on the plane to Japan.
Teams took 23 players to the World Cup but Neville can take only 18 to the Olympics. His pool of players is bigger too, because he can select from the other home nations. In 2012 two Scots, Kim Little and Ifeoma Dieke, joined an overwhelmingly English side. Now there are more Scottish players in the top Women’s Super League teams than ever. Little is surely on Neville’s shortlist, and her Arsenal teammates Lisa Evans and Jen Beattie, Chelsea’s Erin Cuthbert and Sophie Ingle and Caroline Weir of Manchester City are a few of many whose inclusion would not be questioned. Wales’s Jess Fishlock, should she have recovered from an ACL injury sustained during the NWSL season with Seattle Reign, could stake a late claim.
With these players knocking on Neville’s door England’s stars cannot feel safe, particularly given recent results. The Lionesses have a point to prove to their manager, giving an added edge to these friendly ties.
Few things should motivate the Lionesses more than the chance to avenge a defeat which rocked them, regardless of the relatively small weight of the tournament. Playing the USA for the first time since their World Cup semi-final exit should shake them into action and put a limp end to 2019 behind them. Though the majority of the USA squad are in the NWSL off-season, Concacaf Olympic qualifiers at the end of January give the world champions the chance to sharpen their claws for the visit of England, Japan and Spain. The majority of the Lionesses, meanwhile, will be close to the business end of a gruelling league campaign which could distract from the task at hand but also means they have top-level competitive football in their legs.
Sides from further down the Fifa rankings are often happy to stifle and frustrate England. Portugal, Belgium and the Czech Republic revelled in the role of underdog in recent friendlies and tested the still-bruised Lionesses’ fight. Spain, Japan and USA are closer to the level of opposition Team GB hope to be competing with at the latter stages of the Olympics. Japan are the hosts in the summer and, if USA do not qualify at the beginning of February, then something has gone very wrong. These are teams that will get the ball down, dominate possession and put England under some real pressure but also give them the space to play.
The schedule for the SheBelieves Cup is gruelling. The teams play in Orlando, then New Jersey and finally Dallas. That means flights of approximately seven hours and three matches in the space of seven days sandwiched by the long-haul return trip to the US for the three visiting teams.
Travel from the hot south to the much cooler north and back adds to the testing environment. But what better way to prepare for the intensity of tournament football on the other side of the world in the summer?
It also gives the new high performance coach Dawn Scott, who helped to mastermind the dominance of the US in her 10 years with US Soccer, the chance to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the players at close quarters and in extreme conditions.
• The former England international Eni Aluko has announced her retirement from professional football. The Guardian columnist left Juventus in November after finishing last season as the club’s top scorer and having won Serie A, the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa Italiana during her 18-month spell in Italy. The 32-year-old was capped 102 times by the Lionesses and won five FA Cups and three league titles in England.
• Arsenal’s Tabea Kemme has also announced her retirement having struggled to come back from a knee injury which hugely limited her playing time. Before joining the Gunners the 28-year-old played 145 times for German club Turbine Potsdam and won the 2010 Champions League with them.
• England most-capped player Fara Williams has signed a contract extension with Reading to the end of the 2020-21 season. Williams is their joint top scorer with six goals this season.
• Celtic have announced the recruitment of Fran Alonso as their new manager following confirmation that the team would become fully professional and receive significant investment. Alonso, who worked as Ronald Koeman’s first-team assistant at Everton and as Mauricio Pochettino’s technical coach at Southampton, became manager of Lewes women a year ago. The team recorded two wins and two draws in their opening four Championship fixtures but have lost 11 games since and sit eighth in the table.
• Lucy Bronze has been voted 2019 BT England player of the year alongside Jordan Henderson. Bronze collects the award for the second time, after another trophy-laden year with Lyon and a World Cup semi-final with England, having first won the honour in 2015. Ellen White and Beth Mead were second and third respectively.