England women’s coach Sarina Wiegman thinks her side are in a “good place” ahead of Wednesday’s Euro 2022 opener against Austria, but only excellence will do in a tournament with unprecedented expectations for the Lionesses.
A crowd of 71,000 will watch the tournament kick off at Old Trafford, breaking the attendance record for a European Women’s Championship game by more than 30,000 in the process.
This record will be short-lived with more than 87,000 tickets sold for the final at Wembley on July 31.
After three consecutive semi-final defeats at major tournaments, the pressure is on England to make home advantage count.
However, a lot has changed since losing in the last four to eventual World Cup winners USA three years ago.
The main difference is Wiegman, the meticulous Dutch coach who led his native country to Euro glory on home soil five years ago.
A delay at the Tokyo Olympics, where Wiegman took the Netherlands to the quarter-finals, left England waiting more than a year for the 52-year-old to take on the role.
But she proved she was more than worth the wait in a 14-game unbeaten streak since taking charge.
England have scored 84 goals and conceded just three in that span, including a win against Germany and a 5-1 loss to the Netherlands last month.
“England will be the favorites at the Euros,” Netherlands boss Mark Parsons said after his side’s humiliation at Elland Road.
“The quality of the players, the home crowd, the resources the Women’s Super League have invested, the work the clubs have done – it all comes together and it’s very hard to see that they’re not favourites.”
– ‘A bit of class’ –
Lucy Bronze, Millie Bright, Jill Scott and Ellen White are the old guard who have come so close to major tournament success in the past.
But the team has also evolved a lot since the 2019 World Cup to combine youth and experience.
Leah Williamson played just six minutes in France three years ago but succeeded Steph Houghton as captain under Wiegman.
And there’s an array of new attacking talent, including Lauren Hemp, Chloe Kelly, Ella Toone and Alessia Russo.
“There’s something different about this team now. They have a bit of class,” said former England international Karen Carney.
“It’s such a promising time for England. The manager is really the best shot.”
If they’re going to go all the way, strength in depth will likely make the difference.
In the three warm-up games against Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, the scores were level after 50 minutes only for England to strike a total of 11 times in the closing stages once Wiegman emptied his bench.
“We don’t play with 11 players, we have so many more in our squad and we can make a change in the second half,” Wiegman said.
“I think we’re in a very good position but it will show in the Euros. They’re all friendlies, it’s very nice to learn from them but it really starts next Wednesday.”
A group comprising Austria and tournament debutants Northern Ireland, which the Lionesses recently swept in World Cup qualifiers, should pose no major obstacles to reaching the quarter-finals.
The real test will come in the round of 16 with England likely to face tournament favorites Spain, eight-time winners Germany or 2017 runners-up Denmark in the last eight .
Wherever they go, capacity crowds are likely to follow with their three group matches already sold out.
But with the attention also comes the expectation of ending England’s wait for a major title in women’s football.