The road stops here. Four years on from Canada, the Women’s World Cup returns with what promises to be a blockbuster four weeks in France.
The United States are hoping to clinch their fourth crown on the 20th anniversary of their famous 1999 triumph on home soil. A talent-rich France, however, should have something to say about that, while there is plenty of buzz surrounding Phil Neville’s England following March’s success in the SheBelieves Cup.
However, there are storylines everywhere you look and, with Friday night’s France v South Korea curtain-raiser on the horizon, we’ve picked out seven you should look out for in the days and weeks ahead.
One of the most obvious but intriguing narratives surrounds the hosts.
Of course, following Les Bleus’ triumph in Russia last summer, Corinne Diacre’s side will make history if they succeed here as the first country to hold the men’s and women’s World Cups at the same time.
And Les Bleues are certainly blessed with one of the strongest squads in the tournament, with their core made up of several of Lyon’s all-conquering Champions League winners.
France’s World Cup history is tinged with pain though. Despite being viewed as a footballing superpower, they’ve never finished higher than fourth, falling at the quarter-final stage in 2015 on penalties to a strong Germany side.
With the added pressure of ‘home advantage’, this certainly won’t be a walk in the park, but with the leadership of Amandine Henry, goalscoring prowess of Eugénie Le Sommer and exciting skill-set of Delphine Cascarino, Lyon’s increasingly impressive 22-year-old winger, it would be a huge surprise if France weren’t to go deep.
However, they will have to face the United States in the quarter-finals if both nations win their respective groups.
Neville’s tactical quandary
There is no shortage of intrigue, excitement and even a little consternation surrounding England’s campaign.
Phil Neville’s Lionesses are tactically flexible and technically sound but friendly defeats at home to Canada and New Zealand have raised concerns.
In Fran Kirby, Nikita Parris, Toni Duggan, Beth Mead, Ellen White and Jodie Taylor, the latter of whom top-scored at the Euros in 2017, Neville has an embarrassment of riches in attack, but the pressure will be on the 42-year-old coach to assemble the right system based on their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses.
Last week’s defeat to New Zealand has likely put paid to the idea of Duggan and Parris operating in wider roles, but there is still much excitement over the potential of Kirby operating as the main playmaker behind experienced goal-getter Taylor in a 4-2-3-1.
Keep an eye out for Lucy Bronze, who’s established herself as one of the world’s leading right-backs after leaving Manchester City for Lyon in 2017.
?Nice is nice… pic.twitter.com/e4QjJOADm3
— Lionesses (@Lionesses) June 4, 2019
Christine Sinclair on the verge of greatness
Now 35, the legendary Canadian’s fifth World Cup could prove the most memorable.
Yes, the Portland Thorns forward could become the highest-scoring women’s international in history.
Currently on 181, Sinclair requires four more to surpass USWNT legend Abby Wambach’s 184.
Having burst onto the scene with three strikes to help her country to a fourth-placed finish in 2003, Sinclair’s individual haul will remain a talking point as Kenneth Heiner-Møller’s side take on Cameroon, the Netherlands and New Zealand in Group E.
Can the Dutch kick on from Euro success?
While much has been made about the Dutch renaissance in the men’s game, captured through the prism of Ajax’s run to the Champions League semi-final, Sarina Wiegman’s Oranje are targeting a major tournament double after their success at the 2017 Euros on home soil.
A pacey, vibrant attacking side, Holland boast serious talent in reigning PFA Player of the Year Vivianne Miedema, 2017 Best FIFA Women’s Player Lieke Martens and speed merchant Shanice van de Sanden.
When the forward-thinking players click into gear, they are a joy to watch, but it hasn’t been plain sailing since clinching the European title. They required play-off victories against Denmark and Switzerland to reach France while defensive issues have seen them keep just one clean sheet in their last six games.
With Martens, Miedema and Van de Sanden up top and Arsenal’s Daniëlle van de Donk as the creative supply, Holland certainly have the artillery to overpower teams. Keeping it tight at the back will be crucial to their chances, though.
It’s worth noting, too, that 22-year-old Miedema needs just two goals to break the all-time Dutch scoring record. Manon Melis, who retired from international duty in 2016, has 59. However, while Melis needed 136 caps to reach that figure, Miedema has struck 58 times in just 75 appearances.
Will attack over defence work for USWNT?
Aiming for a fifth crown and blessed with a remarkably deep squad, chock full of seasoned World Cup campaigners, anything worse than an appearance in the semi-final will be viewed as a major disappointment for the defending champs.
Luckily, though, following an uncertain spell between 2016-17 which saw them exit the Rio Olympics at the quarter-finals and briefly relinquish their spot atop the world rankings to Germany, Jill Ellis has steadied the ship, losing just once since March 2017.
The USWNT have genuinely world-class forwards in Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, with a strong trio of Carli Lloyd, Mallory Pugh, and Christen Press in reserve.
While abroad, @alexmorgan13 witnessed what soccer could become in the USA. Since then, she’s done everything in her power to bring it to the forefront, both on and off the field.
— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) June 1, 2019
Yes, scoring won’t be the problem in France, but a back-line which has conceded at least two goals in four different games this calendar year suggests they can be opened up at the back.
The United States kept five straight clean sheets on their way to the final in 2015. We can’t see them repeating that feat in France, especially if they come up against their attack-happy hosts in the quarters.
Even Marta will struggle to carry this Brazil side…
Now 33, this is likely to be Marta’s World Cup swansong.
There would be no better way to bow out than by lifting the trophy she came close to getting her hands on in 2007 – when she scored seven times to help Brazil to a runners-up place behind Germany – but that is highly unlikely given the current negative mood surrounding the national team.
An alarming slide since capturing the 2018 Copa America – including losing nine consecutive friendlies – has seen them slip to tenth in the world rankings.
They are still without defender Rafaelle while news that forward Adriana will miss the tournament due to a knee injury came as a major blow.
There have been suggestions that head coach Vadão’s 4-4-2 system places undue pressure on Marta who, given her age, wants to stay in and around the box. However, even with the Canarinhas’ recent woes, it would be foolish to underestimate the abilities of one of the greatest to have ever graced a football pitch.
Introduction of VAR
Remember how much controversy, tension and drama it caused in Russia last year?
Get ready for more fun – and questionable decisions – with VAR likely to be at the centre of attention over the next month.