On paper, Euro 2022 couldn’t have gone much better for new Lionesses head coach Sarina Wiegman as she looks to get her hands on the trophy she won with her home nation on home turf just over four years ago in the Netherlands.
Euro 2022 Draw Results:
Netherlands (current holders)
England avoided Spain and Sweden in Pot 2 and arguably avoided the stronger sides in Pots 3 and 4 too, drawing instead familiar opponents in Norway, Austria, and Northern Ireland.
Martin Sjögren’s side should offer the toughest test with the offensive threat of FC Barcelona forward Caroline Graham Hansen and plenty of other household names, but England does have a recent 3–0 win in a World Cup qualifier against the same opponent to look back on.
Austria and Northern Ireland, incredibly, also form part of England’s current 2023 World Cup qualifying group and just last week the Lionesses and their U.K. counterparts faced off at Wembley in a 4–0 win for Wiegman’s side.
They are yet to face Austria but will do so next month in Sunderland before the reverse fixture takes place a month after next summer’s tournament ends.
It might mean it’s a relatively uninspiring group and there’s no real “glamour” fixture; the opener at Old Trafford certainly could have offered up a more eye-catching opponent than Irene Fuhrmann’s resolute and solid Austria side, who under their previous head coach made a surprise run to the semifinals four years ago thanks to their defensive organization.
“They are countries we know very well,” said Wiegman after the draw was made in Manchester on Thursday evening. “Austria and Northern Ireland are in our group now for the World Cup qualifiers, and Norway I know really well because I’ve played them a lot with the Netherlands. You just have to play whatever team is in your group, that’s just the way it is.
“We always prepare anyway. For my own character, I like to play different teams and change. It doesn’t matter now, but I find it challenging to get a team you’ve never played or haven’t played a lot, but now we prepare for this and whatever comes in front of you.”
Fuhrmann only took over the national team job in 2020 and is currently aiming to take Austria to the World Cup in 2023, and she said it would be an “absolute honor” to lead the team out in the opener against the hosts at Old Trafford in front of what the FA and UEFA will both hope is a record sellout crowd.
“It will be an absolute highlight for every player and staff member to go and play the host nation in front of a home crowd and a great atmosphere.
“It’s a special situation to face England and Northern Ireland again, but it can also be an advantage in terms of preparation for the game because we will have history with both teams leading up to the tournament.”
Fuhrmann also admitted she would lean on Barclays FA Women’s Super League duo Manuela Zinsberger and Viktoria Schnaderbeck if they had any useful information about some of the players they either play with or against in the league ahead of the tournament, while Northern Ireland head coach Kenny Shiels knows his side heads into the tournament as underdogs.
“Obviously [any] draw for us is going to be difficult,” he said. “But the happiest people here tonight are English, Norwegian, and Austrian, they’ve got us. When it came out the English people were all cheering and wooing, ‘We’ve got Northern Ireland,’ an easy match for them. But, we’ve got to segregate the three games and try and do our best in the first game and then think about the second one and then think about the third.”
The home nations clash against England will be the final group match and one of the most eye-catching of the tournament, and Shiels knows the extra depth and talent on offer to the top nations makes it even harder for his side, as he experienced last weekend at Wembley.
“I think it’s fair to say that against England we mapped out their team, we did it to the last letter of England’s players’ positions and their strengths and their weaknesses. So we put it all together and for 64 minutes, we nullified England.
“But then they brought on two more professionals and scored four in 12 minutes or something and killed us because we put so much energy and the preparation for the eleven was brilliant. It was the same against Austria in preparation for the eleven was fantastic. We were 2–1 up, and then the sub comes on and scores.”
Shiels admitted he hopes the national team could go to a more full-time program ahead of the tournament but it will be difficult due to the part-time nature of the nation’s domestic league. He said it laid bare the differences between Northern Ireland and the opponents they will face next summer.
“We lost five players on Sunday, they [Austria] had two and a half days extra rest than us. We played England on Saturday evening and then we played on Tuesday. It’s tough for the girls to come back to work, who were back at work yesterday. They do it and that’s where they went on Wednesday morning after playing Austria, on their knees.
“We couldn’t get out because they were so tired and Austria were walking all over us because of that lack of fitness. We were trying to make substitutions and we didn’t know who we could bring on, the center halfs were on their knees. It really was difficult to hold out.”
England head coach Wiegman also knows that while all eyes in the lead-up to the tournament will be on the opener at the famous Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, the game against Northern Ireland at Southampton’s St. Mary’s Stadium will also hopefully be a sellout, and the head coach had a simple message for the Lionesses supporters.
“Buy tickets. It’s the opening game and it’s going to be massive. The crowd are going to be our 12th woman behind us. We just want to connect with the fans and they can help create a great atmosphere.
“I hope it’s going to be sold out at Southampton. It’s just an amazing stadium too. It’s nice for everyone because we want to do well and we want to have our fans, but Northern Ireland will have their fans too.”
Norway should theoretically provide the sternest test for the Lionesses with an array of household names on the European stage, and Sjögren wasn’t surprised to see his team drawn against the hosts for what is now a third tournament in a row.
“It was probably not entirely unexpected that it was England,” he told fotboll.no. “We have met the host countries in both the Netherlands and France. The advantage of meeting the home nation is that there is a lot of interest around the match, it will be big. Now we know who we meet and now the sporting planning begins.”
While the group stage draw went as well as it could have for the hosts, there may well be a major stumbling block standing in the way of progression to the semifinals whether they win the group or not.
The winners of each group should theoretically get an easier quarterfinal draw on paper but with the winners of Group A set to face the runners-up of Group B, England could face either Germany, Spain, or Denmark, likely one of the former two, as a reward for winning their own group.
Until 2017, Germany has dominated the European Championships and would no doubt prove a tough test for the Lionesses, while Spain is rapidly becoming the dark horses for the tournament given the amount of players in the current squad from FC Barcelona’s treble-winning side.
Denmark could be an outside shout for progression after their run to the Euro 2017 semifinal and has Chelsea’s Pernille Harder in attack, but the realistic prospect of Germany or Spain in the final eight, whether they come first or second in Group A will not be what Wiegman had in mind when mapping out a potential second home success in a row.
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