England’s women are preparing to start their quest for glory at the European Championships but what are their chances of lifting a first major trophy?
Mark Sampson’s players head to the Netherlands showpiece, which kicks off on Sunday, as one of the fancied sides after a watershed 2015 World Cup in which they beat hosts Canada and European champions Germany to finish third.
With the bulk of a team that stirred a nation still together, can England build on surprise success now expectations are raised? From the form guide to the players who could make a difference, we assess their hopes and challenges…
How tough is their group?
England are top seeds in Group D and kick off with a grudge match against tournament debutants Scotland on July 19, before facing Spain four days later and then another first-time entrant, Portugal, on July 27.
An opener against 80/1 shots depleted by injuries might appear a mismatch in terms of experience but expect that to be tempered in Utrecht by the added motivation that international football’s oldest rivalry always inspires.
“I think there’s probably some unfinished business after the guys’ game not too long ago; it’s set up nicely for us,” Scotland captain Gemma Fay, recalling last month’s dramatic men’s World Cup qualifier, told the Guardian.
Spain – whom England deservedly beat in an October friendly – eased through qualification, before winning warm-up event the Algarve Cup, but are missing the big-game experience of Veronica Boquete. Portugal are the lowest-ranked side in the competition and should pose few fears.
“England could quite easily top their group but it could be tighter than many might expect,” former Arsenal and England winger Rachel Yankey told Sky Sports News HQ’s Sportswomen. “Spain are a good side – very technical – and I do think there’s no better game for Scotland to play first than England. They’ve nothing to lose, they’ll be playing with passion and England really need to watch out.”
Can England win it?
Sampson’s side – at 8/1 with Sky Bet – are third favourites to win the tournament behind holders Germany (2/1) and France (3/1) .
A dominant Germany have won six Euros in a row, while France – whom England will hope to avoid in the quarters by winning their group – could boast a side packed with players who helped Lyon to the treble last term. Talent, togetherness, tournament experience and key players in form make England worthy of their high ranking, though.
Only an agonising Laura Bassett own goal in extra-time prevented their march to the World Cup final and Sampson believes his largely intact side are all the better for their experience.
“That heartache we suffered in the World Cup absolutely will be a weapon we will use in this tournament,” he told reporters. “In relation to mentality and athleticism, we have made huge strides. Now I feel we have a team with all the trademarks a champion team needs. All we ever talk about is how we’re going to be the last team to come home.”
Captain Steph Houghton is equally convinced. “Can we win it? Yes,” she told Sky Sports News HQ. “We’ve played well over the last few years, we’ve built momentum through the qualifiers and I really feel there’s a confidence in this team.”
What form are they in?
England head for Holland after a promising streak of victories against fellow Euro finalists. They sealed 3-0 and 4-0 wins over Austria and Switzerland respectively and then overcame a setback to beat Denmark 2-1 win in their final warm-up, powerful striker Ellen White scoring twice.
White was the hero when England beat world champions USA at the SheBelieves Cup back in March – another pivotal moment in the side’s development. There were defeats to Germany and France, too, but narrow ones that led a satisfied Sampson to talk of “small margins”.
How will Sampson set up?
Expect the boss to rotate his squad and switch up his system; the Welshman is big on tactical flexibility and warned rivals after picking his 23-strong party he could conjure up “25 different formations and 25 different styles”.
He deployed 3-5-2 frequently in qualifying, Lucy Bronze a key outlet down the right, but has also utilised a midfield diamond he believes brings the best out of tricky Karen Carney.
“Mark likes to pick specific people for specific games,” Bronze said ahead of the tournament. “Even I couldn’t guess Mark’s starting XI for the first game in the Euros. But one thing is constant – if you get complacent, you won’t play.”
Who could be key?
Sampson drew criticism for naming his squad more than three months before the start of the tournament but the inclusion of Fran Kirby – who had missed a year on the international stage through injury – looks to have been a smart one. The Chelsea striker – memorably dubbed ‘Mini Messi’ by her manager – scored on her England return and netted six times in five matches for her club during the Spring Series stopgap tournament.
The experience and leadership qualities of stalwarts such as Houghton, Fara Williams and Jill Scott, whether on the pitch or in the dressing room, will be key but look out for Chelsea’s versatile Millie Bright and Manchester City’s “fearless” forward Nikita Parris – both talented newcomers in the senior squad.
Energetic midfielder Jordan Nobbs is tipped to exert a key influence, while Toni Duggan – buoyed by a high-profile move to Barcelona – will be out to impress.Soccer Accumulator Bonus
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