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World Cup Group D preview: Lucy Bronze hopes to make England a tough match

Lucy Bronze of Lyon, left, in action against Lieke Martens of Barcelona during the women’s soccer UE
Lucy Bronze, left, battles Lieke Martens for the ball during a UEFA Champions League final between Olympique Lyon and FC Barcelona in Budapest on May 18.
(Tibor Illyes / Associated Press)

What’s in a name? Plenty if you’re versatile English defender Lucy Bronze.

In her first World Cup four years ago, Bronze helped England to its best-ever finish, earning a spot on the all-tournament team after the Lionesses won the bronze by finishing third.

This summer she’ll be emphasizing her middle name, Tough, in an effort to get England a couple of steps up the medal podium in Lyon, the city where she plays club soccer for 18-time French champion Olympique Lynonnais, winner of the last four Women’s Champions League titles.

“The goal is for the gold,” Bronze told Britain’s Sky Sports. “The goal is to make the final. I don’t see why we can’t make it.

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“I would say I’m still on a high from a successful club domestic year and I want to carry that on and keep winning trophies.”

Since her breakout World Cup in 2015, Bronze, whose middle name is also her mother’s maiden name, has been on a high with the national team as well. In addition to the third-place finish in Canada, England made it to the semifinals of the last European Championships — matching its best performance in more than three decades — then won this year’s SheBelieves tournament in the U.S., besting a field that included three other top 10 teams. That pushed it to third, behind the U.S. and Germany, in the latest FIFA world rankings and makes England one of the favorites to lift the Cup next month.

And at 27, Bronze may be just entering her prime.

“Lucy Bronze is the best player in the world,” England coach Phil Neville said after trying out Bronze in the midfield earlier this year. “Write that down. Print that. Because she is.”

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That wasn’t the first time Neville, a former national team player who also moved from the back line to the midfield, showered Bronze with praise.

“She’s phenomenal,” he told the Guardian newspaper last year. “I think Lucy could play in the men’s game, I really do. She’s got that much quality.”

Neville credits Bronze’s 2017 move from Manchester City to Lyon with her progress.

“Training with some of the best players in world football has challenged Lucy,” he said. “It’s taken her game to a different level.”

And now she hopes to take England to a different level, too, beginning June 9 when it opens World Cup play against tournament debutante Scotland in Nice. England will also meet Argentina and No. 7 Japan in group play.

Group D

England

World ranking: 3

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How qualified: Winner, UEFA qualification group 1

Last World Cup: 2015, third place; also the best World Cup finish

Key players: Defenders Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton, goalkeeper Karen Bardsley and forward Toni Duggan

Outlook: Another team on an upward trend, England made it to the semifinals of its last two major international tournaments, finishing third in the 2015 World Cup and second in the 2017 Euro. It then bested three top 10 teams to win this year’s SheBelieves Cup. Led by Bronze, the best outside back in soccer, England was unbeaten in UEFA qualifying, scoring 29 goals and conceding one in eight games. Coach Phil Neville guided the team through qualifying after replacing longtime coach Mark Sampson in January 2018. Sampson was fired following allegations of inappropriate behavior and remarks. Neville used 34 players in qualifying. Jodie Taylor led the 2017 Euro in scoring with five goals. She plays in the National Women’s Soccer League for Reign FC.

Scotland

World ranking: 20th

How qualified: Winner, UEFA qualification group 2

Last World Cup: This is team’s first tournament

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Key players: Defenders Jennifer Beattie and Rachel Corsie, forward Jane Ross and midfielder Kim Little

Outlook: Church records show women were playing soccer in Scotland in 1628 and the country’s first women’s international match took place in 1881 (the Scots beat England 3-0). Yet it wasn’t until this summer that Scotland qualified for a World Cup, rebounding from a disappointing performance in the 2017 Euro by winning its group in UEFA qualifying under former Scottish international Shelley Kerr, who took over as coach 26 months ago. That was a fitting reward for a hard-working team that features five players with more than 100 international caps. And they may be peaking at the right time having beaten both Brazil and Denmark this year.

Argentina

World ranking: 37

How qualified: Winner, CONCACAF-CONMEBOL playoff

Last World Cup: 2007, group stage

Best World Cup finish: Group stage, twice

Key players: Defenders Florencia Bonsegundo and Aldana Cometti and forwards Sole Jaimes and Yael Oviedo

Outlook: Hard to believe that a country with the soccer pedigree of Argentina has never gotten beyond the group stage of a Women’s World Cup. The last time the Albicelestes did that was 2007, after which the program suffered through a nine-year period in which FIFA records show it played no sanctioned games in five of those years. It regrouped in 2017, endured a brief work stoppage as players sought better pay and working conditions — for a time the team’s promised $10 stipends went unpaid — then beat Panama in a playoff to clinch its first World Cup berth in 12 years. Its roster is understandably lacking in international experience and it has been drawn into a foursome that includes two top 10 teams in Brazil and Japan and an improving Scotland. Argentina’s weak pretournament schedule included games with four U.S. college teams, only two of which it beat.

Japan

World ranking: 7

How qualified: Winner, 2018 Asian Cup

Last World Cup: 2015, runner-up

Best World Cup finish: Champion, 2011

Key players: Defenders Saki Kumagai and Rumi Utsugi and forwards Kumi Yokoyama and Mana Iwabuchi

Outlook: Former midfielder Asako Takakura, the first woman to coach the national team, took over after Japan’s second-place performance in the last World Cup and introduced some new blood to the team, returning just five of the 14 players that appeared in the 2015 final. What hasn’t changed is Japan’s reliance on a quick passing game that leans heavily on the discipline and technique of players like Iwabuchi and Yokoyama, nicknamed the Japanese Maradona for her ball-control skills. Japan has played a bruising pre-World Cup schedule, losing to England and France, drawing against the U.S. and Germany and beating Brazil.

Schedule

June 9: England vs. Scotland

June 10: Argentina vs. Japan

June 14: Japan vs. Scotland, England vs. Argentina

June 19: Japan vs. England, Scotland vs. Argentina

kevin.baxter@latimes.com | Twitter: @kbaxter11


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