Just over a week from now, the game that we have all been waiting for is here. Ever since the draw was made back in November, England’s opening game of the European Championships on the 19th July has been eagerly anticipated. The fact that it is against Scotland only adds to the drama. Here we take a look at England’s chances ahead of a huge summer for women’s football.
Path to the European Championships
England came through their qualifying campaign more or less unscathed but there had been a few little frights along the way.
Having hit the ground running with an 8-0 win over Estonia, including a hat-trick for Danielle Carter and goal for Izzy Christiansen on their debuts, they then found the going tough against Bosnia & Herzegovina (twice) and Belgium.
On a horribly rainy day in November, Bosnia visited the Lionesses in Bristol and defended for their lives. Faced with a flat back of nine, England tried everything they could to break through and will have breathed a sigh of relief when Jill Scott popped up with the winner.
Into early 2016 and a home game against Belgium followed. The visitors provided a stern test for England’s defensive capabilities in front of an expectant home crowd in Rotherham. Janice Cayman gave the Belgians the lead in the first half and, in all honesty, the deficit should have been bigger at half-time. It was Jill Scott who became the hero again, equalising with six minutes to go and salvaging a welcome point for the Lionesses.
Four days later, England were running out in Zenica to face another tough Bosnian performance. While not offering a lot up front – they were limited t0 occasionally giving the English a scare on the break – they set up strong defensively once more and the visitors struggled to break them down. It was a late goal again that secured the three points with Karen Carney scoring at the death to send England home victorious.
June saw a double header against Serbia that proved a lot more fruitful with 14 goals across both games. The first at the home of Wycombe Wanderers saw the Lionesses run rampant. Karen Carney scored a hat-trick while Rachel Daly scored on her senior debut and Ellen White on her return to the setup. Three days later, England travelled to Serbia and put another seven goals past their struggling defence. This time it was newcomer Nikita Parris who made her claim with a brace in only her second cap.
After a bit of confusion over the mathematics of qualification, it was confirmed as we landed in London the following day. With the pressure off, the battle was on between England and Belgium to finish top of the group. The Lionesses put five past Estonia in Nottingham with Carter scoring her second international hat-trick before they travelled to Leuven for their final group game in September. Two second half goals from Parris and Carney saw England through to finish first. Unbeaten throughout the campaign with 32 goals scored and 1 conceded is not a bad record as the Lionesses move into the tournament with the trophy in their sights.
Early squad announcement, fitness and the weight of expectation
Mark Sampson surprised everyone when the England squad was announced at the beginning of April, three months ahead of the tournament. While there were strong arguments against this decision – namely that players were not being picked on form or given the chance to prove themselves during the Spring Series – the reasons for this were also understandable. Sampson obviously knew who he wanted and the aim was to give the squad of 23 the maximum amount of preparation time possible.
There were some surprising omissions – Danielle Carter, Rachel Daly and Claire Rafferty can consider themselves unlucky – the balance of the squad as a whole is strong. The strong mix between senior and younger players is vital going into a major championships and his gamble on the fitness of Fran Kirby has paid off. She has hit the ground running since her return from long-term injury and certainly justified her inclusion in the 23.
One of the clear focal points of the preparation has been fitness. From the multitude of social media posts, it is the clear aim of the England staff to send the squad into the tournament as one of the fittest teams in Europe. As Sampson said after the friendly against Switzerland back in June:
“We set our standards high in terms of fitness and I am really pleased with the work that has gone on behind the scenes to get ourselves into the physical shape we are in currently. It will be probably be the first time in our history that we go into a tournament where we can compete to be the fittest team. We’re proud of that!”
Another point of emphasis is having all 23 players match ready ahead of the summer. During the 2015 World Cup in Canada, only one player, Carly Telford, didn’t end up on the field of play. It was one of the themes of the England team that summer and Mark Sampson’s managerial career to keep everyone guessing. This looks to be his thought process this summer – having given game time to every player bar the recovering Alex Greenwood in the two friendlies prior to the start of the competition.
“We want 23 players arriving in Utrecht on the 19th July who are fit, ready to compete and ready to win.”
After the achievements of Canada, the Lionesses have put themselves as one of the favourites to lift the trophy on the 6th August. The greater the success, the greater the expectation. Sampson has expressed his view on how the squad has progressed since Canada – “We are a much better unit who are more together and united. We have a greater understanding of what we are trying to achieve and are fitter and stronger than we were in 2015. More importantly we now have 23 women who are able to problem solve on the field – short & long passes, high short press. We are excited to go into the tournament with genuine ambition and expectation to win.” How England handle this weight of expectation will be key!
Pride of Lionesses – Key Players
Over the last couple of years, Lucy has made herself one of the most indispensable right backs in the world. Her pace down the right flank, strength and goalscoring abilities will prove troublesome for even the strongest opponents.
With her 2015 World Cup blighted by injury, Jordan will have much higher hopes for her own performances. A box-to-box midfielder and goalscorer, she goes into the tournament after a strong run of form in the FAWSL Spring Series.
There has been much said about the inclusion of Kirby in the squad after a year lay-off through injury. However, after ending the Spring Series as FAWSL 1’s top scorer with six goals and scoring on her England return, she has more than justified her selection.
Tough, determined and a willingness to run herself ragged in pursuit of the opposition, White has made herself a vital component of this England side. She also has an uncanny knack of scoring vital goals!
Millie has been one of the brightest (no pun intended!) emerging stars since her debut last September. Her defensive abilities have caught the eye and she looks the most likely of the squad’s recent debutants to earn a starting place.
Path to the Finals
Group D is the group of some feisty international derbies with Scotland, Spain and Portugal joining England. Each of these sides will pose different problems to solve.
Scotland have been hit by injury woes ahead of their first major tournament with captain Kim Little and senior stalwarts, Jennifer Beattie and Emma Mitchell all ruled out. They should not be underestimated though with plenty of experience and talent running through the squad. And, as we all know, these derbies can be incredibly unpredictable!
Player to Watch: Caroline Weir
On paper, Spain should prove to be England’s toughest opposition and the Lionesses will have to be wary. The omission of Vero Boquete and Sonia Bermudez was perhaps a surprise but the Spanish are a team of technically strong players across the board. Fans of the FAWSL will know well the abilities that Vicky Losada and Marta Corredera possess.
Player to Watch: Vicky Losada
Portugal enter their first major tournament riding on a wave of increased popularity for the women’s game back home. Familiar faces to England fans will include Ana Borges and Amanda Da Costa, formerly of Chelsea and Liverpool respectively. They are the tournament outsiders on paper but can they make their underdog status work for them?
Player to Watch: Claudia Neto
England’s path to victory will be made slightly easier if they manage to top the group. By doing so, unless something strange happens in Group C, they will avoid the old nemesis, France. On this route, a quarter-final with Switzerland looks most likely before potentially meeting Norway or Sweden in the semi-finals. But, as we all know, these tournaments are so hard to predict and to be the best, you will have to beat the best. We will just have to watch this space!