We are less than 24 hours away from the start of the Olympics. After what has seemed like the longest build up in the world (in fact, it has literally been the longest), Team GB and Chile will take to the field at the Sapporo Dome to officially kick off Tokyo 2020.
Hege Riise’s side come into the tournament with a weight of expectation on their shoulders, despite the slightly makeshift nature of the squad and the lack of real match preparation compared to some of their opponents. Hearing from players and coach alike, the expectation is to at least medal – nothing less will do – preferably with them bringing 22 gold medals back home in just under three weeks’ time.
Despite the lack of match action, the squad have spent the best part of the last month together. Based up in Loughborough, they underwent a rigorous training schedule, including an acclimatisation tent. Under the watchful eye of Dawn Scott, there is no doubt that Team GB have one of the best in the business when it comes to their physical preparation with players across the board, such as Lucy Bronze, emphasising the benefits she brings: “I think she’s probably had the biggest influence on the group…I think we’re collectively bringing a lot more players along with us in physical departments now than ever before. And I think that’s all down to Dawn really…she’s just next level.” They will certainly need it over the next fortnight with temperatures and humidity hitting high levels.
With Covid preventing their send-off friendly against Zambia, Riise’s squad finally managed to get a run out against New Zealand last week, coming away with a 3-0 victory and getting vital minutes into legs in the Japanese heat. It gave the coach a good chance to look at her side and see where they were at with a week to go – “I feel like we know how to play. We looked like how we tried to work in training and that was the best part. Training is one thing but seeing if you can get that on field against an opponent was important. We all gained a lot from that game – attacking but also out of possession, we need to be stronger and quicker to fill the gap. That’s why that game was important coming into the tournament because we’ve been training for a long time…but playing a different opponent makes us better.”
One positive from the lack of game time could be that Team GB are a bit of an unknown entity. The other nations won’t know entirely what to expect of Riise’s side or how they will line up.
From watching the Lionesses under her, Riise prefers an attacking style of football that transitions quickly and maintains possession, leaning on the pace and creativity of her attackers. The addition of Kim Little, Caroline Weir and Sophie Ingle to the midfield will only strengthen the capabilities in this area.
England’s problems in recent times have come mainly through a lack of confidence at the back with players struggling in roles where they normally flourish at a domestic level. Fixing this has to have been the number one concern over the last few weeks for the Team GB coaching staff, especially with the attacking prowess of other nations in the tournament.
For all the talk of Team GB being a bit of an unknown, the same could be said of Chile. The South American nation have qualified for the Olympics for the first time in their history, following off the back of their inaugural World Cup campaign in 2019. The majority of the squad play in Chile where the domestic game has professionalised in recent years, with a handful in Spain, France and Sweden. Christiane Endler, their captain, is the star that tends to grab the headlines with her eye-catching performances between the sticks, but their midfield area should not be overlooked. Riise and her squad will be aware that while Team GB will be the favourites, Chile are a team that are not to be underestimated: “They are very good. Technical players working hard. We have seen them in many games now. So, we are prepared for a very hard opponent tomorrow and we look forward to the game.”
Player to Watch
Lauren Hemp is the youngest member of the Team GB squad but that certainly won’t daunt the Manchester City star. Frighteningly quick, she has terrorised many a full back over the last Barclays FAWSL campaign, with six goals and eight assists last season. Riise will be looking for her to exploit the spaces down the flanks and act as a dangerous weapon on the break. Making sure she stays fit will be crucial for Team GB’s fortunes over the next few weeks.