Her 14 group stage goals were the most by any team at a European Women’s Championship. Her eighth win against Norway secured the biggest win in the tournament’s history, beating her own record. Another loss to Northern Ireland made them the first to score five or more goals in consecutive EURO matches. These records, broken in about 10 days, are all the more impressive given that they kept three clean sheets at the other end.
If the last three games of this tournament go as well as the first three, England will win their first Women’s Euro at a gallop.
If it just could be that easy. Sarina Wiegman’s side may have made it look easy up until now, but it’s about to get a whole lot harder. Expectations were high at the beginning, but now they are even higher. All the good work of the group stage will go to waste if the trip ends on Sunday, a week before the Wembley final. And while the Lionesses’ chances of glory have dropped drastically and they can well see themselves going all the way, most people’s favorites are waiting ahead of the tournament in the quarterfinals.
Spain have so far failed to live up to the hype surrounding them at the start of the month, needing a 90th-minute winner in Brentford on Saturday to guarantee progress at Denmark’s expense. Links with Barcelona Femeni – nine of the 23-man squad play for arguably the most dominant club side in world football – have not translated into the same lustrous attacking game. Jorge Vilda’s use of the talent at his disposal has been questionable and contradictory, and history isn’t on their side either. Four knockout games in four major tournaments all ended in defeat.
Perhaps this slow start was to be expected. The loss of Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas on the eve of the tournament was a major blow to Spain, as was the knee injury that prevented top scorer of all time Jennifer Hermoso from being called up. Group B was also widely regarded as the toughest of the four. The gaps between second and third place should always have been small. Vilda’s side finished just down the right flank and now goes into the knockout stages with a clean sheet. And even if expectations have been tempered, they will make a vastly different proposal than anything England have faced in the group.
Although Spain were underchallenged they are still a side capable of dominating action and perhaps the only one in this tournament capable of dominating the Lionesses. No team in the tournament had a higher average possession percentage and they are invariably the protagonists in every competition. Spain also got away with 70 percent ball possession in the 0-2 defeat against group winners Germany. England have had a healthy dose themselves in all three group games but this quarter-final in Brighton is likely to take a different turn.
Not only do England have to wait to win the ball, they also have to keep it when they do. The few moments the Lionesses looked vulnerable during Wiegman’s 17 games unbeaten were when they were under high and fierce pressure, such as in the early stages of the opener against Austria. Pressing is just as much a part of Spanish philosophy as careful handling of ball possession. No team finished Euro 2022 with the intensity of the Lionesses’ quarter-final opponents. Only Sweden – potential semi-final opponents for these two teams – has recorded more turnovers at the top of the field.
But even with all their possession and all their difficulties creating chances, Spain often threw too much forward and seemed vulnerable to counterattacks. Chasing the golden boot against Beth Mead and Lauren Hemp’s ball-carrying lead at half-time could give England their best chance of securing a place in the semi-finals. So far, the Lionesses have been comfortable whether they need to mine a low block or play into wide, open spaces. This versatility in their attacking game could work to their advantage.
After all, this is something that Spain lacks. “I expect that from the game [Spain] played all the time,” said Wiegman from English base Teddington on Tuesday. “They will probably be on the ball a lot. I hope we will have the ball too. We’ve played them before and they had a little more possession, but that’s okay at certain moments in the game.” Rather than sticking to a rigid philosophy, Wiegman’s more pragmatic approach gives England options. “It’s about using our strengths and exploiting their weaknesses. We know there are spaces because they have such an offensive playstyle. We are absolutely aware of that.”
It’s certainly the sort of tactical conundrum that will require Wiegman to stand on the sidelines at the Amex Stadium, although it’s not yet clear if she’ll take charge or her assistant Arjan Veurink will once again take the lead. The Lionesses head coach is doing better after her positive Covid test last Friday and said she is “ready to go”. She has taken part in pre-match preparations and followed training remotely over the weekend wearing a mask, but is still awaiting the negative test, which will allow her to fully resume her duties.
It’s hardly an ideal situation on the eve of a knockout match at a major tournament. And all the time expectations are rising. On Friday night at St Mary’s, Northern Ireland head coach Kenny Shiels used his last post-match press conference before saying goodbye to this EURO to declare that anything but reaching and winning the Wembley final would be a “massive failure” for England would. “Everybody else should just go home,” Shiels said. It was more than a little mischievous. The wide open field of starters in the tournament has barely narrowed. It’s still anyone’s business to win.
However, if there is a group of favourites, England have moved all the way up the front thanks to their strong performances in the group stage. Wiegman and her players must now prepare for their first encounter with a competitor in order to win this tournament and their first real trial.
https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/england-spain-preview-time-euro-2022-b2126814.html England face their first real test of Euro 2022 against Spain when the knockout games begin