Norway vs England preview: Steph Houghton, Millie Bright could miss crunch Women's World Cup clash
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Last Updated: 27/06/19 7:19pm
England will bid to reach the Women's World Cup semi-finals on Thursday - but they could be without two defensive stalwarts against Norway.
Manager Phil Neville revealed that captain Steph Houghton is a "major doubt" with an ankle problem after being on the receiving end of a tough, late challenge in Sunday's chaotic 3-0 win over Cameroon, although she did train on Wednesday.
Neville also admitted at his pre-match press conference that Millie Bright could also miss the quarter-final clash in Le Havre through illness that forced her to sit out Wednesday's training session.
But the outlook on both players has improved somewhat, with Houghton and Bright travelling with the rest of the squad for light training on Thursday morning, where they will be assessed ahead of the Norway game later in the day.
"Both are major doubts," Neville said of Houghton and Bright on Wednesday. "Steph because of the tackle and Millie has got a virus that is going a little bit through the camp. We are going to give them right to the last minute to be fit."
Neville 'totally relaxed'
Abbie McManus and Leah Williamson are waiting in the wings should Houghton and Bright miss out but Neville, who has faced repeated questions about whether he knows his best XI yet, insists he has complete confidence in his squad.
"You guys (the media) have had an obsession with my rotation for the last 18 months," he said.
"What I would say is that the players we have played, for instance Leah Williamson playing against Japan at the SheBelieves Cup, Abbie McManus played in the first two games of SheBelieves.
"Abbie's form over the last 18 months, it is for moments like this that we can just say 'no problem'. We just bring two people in who know the system and the style and have utter belief and confidence in each other.
"It is a seamless transition, you plan for these moments. I said six months ago that we don't want to get to the quarter-final of a World Cup and throw a young kid in - so there has been a plan behind it and I am totally relaxed."
'Performance level must increase'
Norway are 12th in the world rankings, nine places below the Lionesses, but Neville is in no doubt about the threat they will pose and has urged his players - frequently loose in possession last time out - to up their game.
"I think Norway tick every box," Neville said. "They've probably been the surprise team of the tournament because probably people have been focusing on the top 10 teams in the world.
"They've got a spirit, a togetherness, a tactical system that's really difficult to play against, and they look like they've got a cause. Maybe Ada Hegerberg not coming has given them a cause to say, 'We're going to show the world we can win without the best player in the world.'
"We're going to probably have to jump up 10 to 15 per cent in our performance levels to be successful in this game, and this tournament."
What do England need to improve?
Tottenham defender Renee Hector gave her opinion on where England need to improve if they are to make it to the semi-finals.
She told the Women's World Cup podcast: "I think they need to be a bit more solid at the back. I don't think they've been overly tested by a great attacking team yet, but Norway pose that threat. Obviously Hughton and Bright are major doubts so that's definitely a problem.
"It's quite good that Phil (Neville) has been rotating the squad because he may need to rely on Leah Williamson and Abbie McManus to step in and do a job.
"They've been a little bit sloppy [with the ball] in patches and giving the ball away in bad areas. They've got away with it because we haven't played a really good team going forward so they definitely need to improve in that area. They also need to move the ball a little bit quicker. We're good at keeping the ball, but we need to shift the teams a little bit more."
White, the 'Shearer-style predator'
Ellen White has hit four goals at the finals so far and Neville believes the 30-year-old has added new predatory instincts to her game.
"I'm not going to name a player in the male game but in terms of characteristics she is a (Ruud) van Nistelrooy, (Alan) Shearer, (Michael) Owen - turning from a hard-working, grafting player into a predator," he said.
"That has been the biggest change, now all she thinks about is goals. Yes, she is a team player but she has got that ruthless streak now where it is about goals and that is what I want my centre-forwards to do."
Focus on Norway
Manager: Swede Martin Sjogren, 42, had just won the Swedish title as manager of Linkoping when in December 2016, he was named as a surprise replacement for Even Pellerud, who had guided Norway to World Cup glory in 1995. Sjogren's first major tournament was a disappointment as Norway crashed out of Euro 2017 in the group stages without scoring a goal, but they bounced back to finish top of their World Cup qualifying group by beating Holland in their decisive match.
Players: Caroline Graham Hansen has been one of the tournament's leading players so far. The Barcelona winger, who scored a penalty in Norway's group win against South Korea, has showcased her dribbling ability at pace and crashed a shot out of nowhere against a post in their last-16 win against Australia. Striker Isabell Herlovsen, plus midfielders Guro Reiten and Ingrid Engen are also on top of their game.
However, Ada Hegerberg - winner of the inaugural women's Ballon d'Or in 2018 - has refused to play for her home nation since the 2017 Euros in protest at how she perceived women footballers were being treated in Norway.
Form: Norway put their disappointing Euros display behind them to finish top of their World Cup qualifying group and have maintained their momentum in France. Group wins over Nigeria and South Korea sandwiched a narrow defeat to the hosts before Sjogren's side held their nerve in Saturday's last-16 clash with Australia, serving up a penalty masterclass in a shootout win, with all four spot-kick takers scoring after the game had ended 1-1 at the end of extra-time.
Opinion from former England defender Claire Rafferty, who told the Women's World Cup podcast: "They started off with a really difficult game against France, they had a really tough group so for them to come out of that has been good for them. In 2015 [at the World Cup], we beat them in the last 16 in a game where they were on top and probably deserved to go through, but we had the luck. For them, it may be a bit of a revenge game.
"They've got some fantastic players, they usually go for a 4-4-2 with two strikes up top, which will cause England problems because the centre-backs are going to be occupied so the spaces with the midfield runners are going to be a big issue. It will be the first test for England with that kind of movement."
- Norway and England have faced twice previously at the Women's World Cup - Norway won 2-0 in the group stage in 1995, while England won 2-1 in the last 16 in 2015.
- The last meeting in any competition between Norway and England was in a friendly in January 2017, with the Norwegians winning 1-0.
- Norway have progressed from four of their five Women's World Cup quarter-finals (1991, 1995, 1999, 2007), losing only in 2003 against the USA.
- England have only progressed from one of their four Women's World Cup quarter-final matches, winning 2-1 against Canada in the 2015 edition; they have won each of their last five matches in the tournament, their longest ever winning run at the Women's World Cup.
- England defender Alex Greenwood - who scored her first World Cup goal in the 3-0 win over Cameroon - has ended on the winning side in all six of her matches at the Women's World Cup, with only two players enjoying a better 100 per cent win rate in the competition's history - Germany's Martina Müller (7/7) and Norway's Anne Nymark Andersen (8/8).