ENGLAND will face what is probably the toughest opening match of any team at the World Cup when they face Scotland, according to manager Phil Neville.
The Lionesses boss has high hopes for his players in France and has previously championed their chances of bringing home the trophy in the run up to the tournament.
Now his first World Cup game as either a player or a manager looms large and the former Manchester United and Everton player has aimed his sights on focussing purely on the three group stage games for now.
“The first game of any major tournament is always the most difficult but against Scotland we probably have the most difficult opener of anyone because it is against our nearest rivals and involves a set of players that know each other,” said Neville.
“We are just looking to get off to a good start and then grow into the competition, but we aren’t really thinking about the end process which is hopefully being successful at this World Cup – we are actually focussing on the three group stage games.
“The first obstacle is to get through the group stage and we are under no illusions as to the level of performance that we will need to win the game against Scotland.
“We know that we are probably favourites because of our world ranking but we also know and have great respect for our opponents because we have watched a lot of their matches.
“This is our toughest match by far and I think Scotland can go a long way in the competition with the quality they have got.”
Like Neville, Scotland will also be making their World Cup debut and like England will be led by a former player in manager Shelley Kerr.
The Lionesses boss has faced several questions during the build up to what is set to be the biggest women’s World Cup in history about his chopping and changing of key players.
But Neville remains adamant ahead of the clash with Scotland that he has more than enough players in the squad to cover every position and he is prepared to use them.
“The easiest thing in the world is to go to a major tournament and play the same 11 every game but if we go far in this competition there is no way we can do that,” he said.
“The team that plays against Scotland, hand on heart, probably won’t be the team that plays against Argentina or Japan because we have a certain way of playing and a philosophy and to do that we need certain players in certain positions.
“History tells you that you can’t do it and the last team to win the World Cup, USA, used 19 or 20 players – I have a strong pool of 28 or 30 players and I trust them all.
“We want these players to go out and express themselves and enjoy it – they have to play with a smile on their faces.
“It is not pressure that we are going to go through – it is just a game of football against a really outstanding young team in a wonderful stadium.”
One player who has been subject to the Neville-rotation-system is captain Steph Houghton and the defender was part of the team that beat Scotland 6-0 in their meeting at Euro 2017.
Scotland, then managed by Anna Signeul, were without their world class midfielder Kim Little but have arrived in France with a full-strength squad and an ambitious manager in Kerr.
“Looking back at 2017 they were injury-hit, and they have those players back now,” said the 31-year-old.
“They have grown a lot over the last two years, obviously by qualifying for this World Cup, but they have also beaten Brazil.
“The likes of Kim Little, Jennifer Beattie, and Erin Cuthbert coming through the ranks, they are going to be the players we have to stop, and we will have to make sure their rhythm doesn’t get anywhere near what they are used to.
“It is always a challenge when I play against these players every week, but they are a much stronger team now.”
Phil Neville’s Lionesses will bid for World Cup glory in France this summer with all their matches broadcast LIVE on BBC One