Japan clash a reminder of England's progress - not a revenge-fuelled rematch

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The Asian nation knocked the Lionesses out in the last four of the 2015 Women's World Cup, but a lot has changed in the four years since

Four years is a long time in football.

Before England faced Japan in the semi-finals of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, then-manager Mark Sampson said: “If you offered me any win against Japan, however it comes, I’d bite your arm off and your two legs.”

The Nadeshiko were the reigning champions, having beaten the United States on penalties at the 2011 World Cup in Germany in their first escapade beyond the competition’s quarter-final stage.

With the likes of Aya Miyama and Nahomi Kawasumi at the peak of their powers, they won every game on their road to the final – where they were eventually upended by a Carli Lloyd masterclass.

Fast forward to 2019 and, as these two prepare to meet in their final group game of this summer’s World Cup, Phil Neville saying something similar is almost unthinkable – but he does.

“I’ve got to be honest, I’d bite your legs off to win tomorrow night!” he says when the quote is presented to him, but there’s a difference.

While he is keen not to play down the achievements by Sampson’s team in Canada, stressing that they deserve the utmost respect for getting where they did, the consensus in the camp is that, this time around, they can do that, and they can do it their way.

“When we went into that World Cup, we weren’t just happy to be there obviously, we wanted to win, but we knew the expectation wasn’t there as much,” Lucy Bronze said.

“We didn’t have as much belief, we hadn’t beaten a lot of the top teams, ever. We come into this World Cup having beaten the likes of the USA, France and Germany now.

“That’s why we’re going into this game tomorrow saying we want to beat [Japan] fair and square, we want to play our game, the way we want to play it, the way we want to win.”

Lucy Bronze quote PS

Toni Duggan reiterated that mentality earlier this week.

“The players prefer this new style,” she said.

“We want to be on the ball, passing and being confident and brave.”

To receive praise and respect from Japan is up there with the highest, given their attractive style of play and back-to-back World Cup finals.

Asked which England players she fears tomorrow, coach Asako Takakura said: “All of them."

She continued: “Seriously, England’s squad is full of excellent players.

“Without us giving everything that we’ve got, we won’t be able to win the game.”

The progress of the FA Women’s Super League is another factor in the growth of the national team. Bronze admitted that, despite her move to Lyon, she “can see why players wouldn’t want to leave” England, while Takakura “hope[s] the Japanese players can have that environment” someday.

It’s these developments that allowed Neville to snap back at a French journalist, who suggested England’s league was weak and that British football is ‘kick and rush’, before the game against Scotland.

It’s these developments that make England anything but underdogs this time around, like they were when the two met four years ago.

England Japan 2015 Women's World Cup

And it’s these developments that, whether you consider England favourites or not, make considering the game a revenge mission for their 2015 semi-final defeat, quite frankly, lazy.

Instead, it’s fuel for the fire in the Lionesses’ bellies, as Bronze perfectly explains.

“That’s something that we’ve got over most of the teams in this tournament,” she said.

“We got knocked out in the semi-final of a World Cup, and we got knocked out in the semi-final of the Euros. I don’t think there’s many other teams that are in the same position as us and are that hungry to get to a final because of those situations that we’ve been through.

“That’s an extra motivation that’s been added to this team.”

While there is admittedly more expectation on England as they come up against the Nadeshiko, it is pressure they have handled just fine so far.

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They did so in stylish fashion in the Battle of Britain when they overcame Scotland, they did so in a patient manner against a more defensive Argentina, and they will expect – and believe – they can do so again against Japan.

This opponent presents a different challenge all together – something that prompted winger Emi Nakajima to say it will be “easy [for Japan] to create gaps” in England’s team.

But, four years on, the Lionesses are a lot more mature and comfortable among the world’s best to get caught up in a pursuit of vengeance. 

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