4 years ago, in late summer in Finland, Hope Powell’s relatively unfancied England team battled their way to a place in the final of Euro 2009, despite qualifying from Group C with only a single Group stage victory. Facing a Germany side that had won the previous four (and five of the last six) European Championships, England were overpowered but returned home with renewed confidence in their ability to mix it with the best of the continent’s footballers.
With the 2013 tournament kicking off this week, in Sweden, can Powell’s charges go one better and return a first international trophy since the (unofficial) World Cup of 1988?
Sadly, sober reflection suggests not. While England enter the tournament on the back of only a single defeat in their previous 12 matches (that being their last warm-up match, a 4-1 thrashing against Swedish hosts) and qualified handily from a group containing a dangerous Netherlands side, there appear to be simply too many factors standing between Powell’s charges and final victory on the 28th July.
Firstly, and most worryingly, this is not quite the settled England squad that one has come to expect. While Powell elected for safety in her selection, a recognition abounds that the currently named 23 may yet see changes before the tournament’s commencement. Having selected a number of players still recovering from injury and seen first-choice centre half Sophie Bradley stretchered off in the Sweden game, replacements may yet be required, with forward Kelly Smith – who has not played since injuring herself in Arsenal’s ill-fated Champions League campaign in April – seemingly the least likely to make it.
Meanwhile, other members of the squad – notably captain Casey Stoney and defensive partner Sophie Bradley – seem slightly out-of-form while first-choice left-back Steph Houghton is both recovering from injury and comes into the tournament having been played primarily as a central midfielder for Arsenal during the FA WSL season under new club manager Shelley Kerr.
With in-form players Natasha Dowie and Gemma Davison left out of the initial 23, Powell has class to call on in reserve, yet the dangers of bedding in new players at such a late stage of the game will be apparent to all.
Secondly, the draw itself offers challenges from an early stage, with Group C presenting emphatic challenges. Even ignoring the presence of France – whom England have never yet beaten under Hope Powell – an improving Spain team and a Russian side, who will surely put up more of a challenge than in their limp 2009 showing which yielded no points, will leave England little margin for error in the tournament’s early stages.
And then there’s the rest of the competition. Which leads us on to…
Who’s Going to Win It?
To look sideways to another sport briefly, if Wimbledon this year has taught us anything, it’s not to make foolish predictions about who will be there at the business end of a tournament. So, a disclaimer. We are emphatically not saying that the three teams below will be there or thereabouts come the lifting of trophies. But if you twisted our arm…
The favourites. The six time winners. The team that has only once, in 32 years of European Championships, failed to make the final. The home of the current Champions League holders. The European centre of women’s football. If Euro 2013 has an unstoppable force, it is incontestably Germany. What hope does the rest of Europe have? Surprisingly, more than might be expected, because since the last European Championships some, some fearsome names have departed the international scene. The 2009 tournament top scorer, Inka Grings, retired last year; the all-time record goalscorer (and unarguably one of the top-5 female players of the last decade) Birgit Prinz hung up her international boots in 2011. Between those two, that’s 192 international goals that aren’t coming into these Euros. Indeed, only one German player comes into the tournament with over 100 caps, that being captain and goalkeeper Nadine Angerer. We’re not saying this makes it easy for anyone, but it’s undoubtedly a new model of German women’s football.
As hosts, Sweden would have been clear contenders going into these Euros irrespective of anything that may happen to them. The appointment of a legendary former player and garlanded international coach could only serve to kick things into overdrive. Enter Pia Sundhage, holder of 146 caps for Sweden, two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup runner up spot as Head Coach of the USA, and the 2012 FIFA World Coach of the Year. How’s that for boosting your chances?
Add in a favourable draw (as likely Group A winners, if all goes to form they will avoid Germany and potentially France until the Final) and a squad containing vast experience and some outstanding youth talent (interestingly, this latter point was perhaps Sundhage’s one relative failing as US Head Coach, being an apparent unwillingness to bring through new players) and Sweden look handily placed.
One of the most outrageously entertaining sides currently playing international football, France have a wonderful tendency to string together consecutive halves of astonishingly inconsistent football. Goal hungry and blessed with pace and invention throughout their forward ranks, as a unit France have an endlessly entertaining habit of simply switching off in defence, ensuring their matches tend to be amongst the most frenetic in world football.
With a squad drawn heavily from the ranks of a Lyon side who have largely dominated European club football in recent years, and their current sixth place in the FIFA global rankings, France may well be the most enjoyable team to watch out for at the tournament.
Ones to Watch
One of the joys of the European Championships is the way in which previously unheralded players have a massive stage on which to announce themselves. Expect at least one surprise package to emerge from within the tournament. Of the anticipated stars, though, we’ve picked out the following to keep an eye on.
Sofia Jakobsson – Sweden
Far from a guaranteed starter in the team, Jakobsson’s 30 caps so far have largely come from the bench where an injection of pace and a direct approach is required. Having settled into the FA WSL this season astonishingly swiftly, following her pre-season transfer to Chelsea, Jakobsson looks more and more a complete footballer. Should she get a chance during the group stages, don’t be surprised to see her working hard to cement a place in the starting line-up later on in the tournament.
Elodie Thomis – France
A player who embodies the sheer unpredictability of France more than any other, Elodie Thomis also happens to the one of The Sportist‘s favourite current footballers. Blessed with outstanding pace and the ability to trick herself past the world’s best defenders, her final ball and decision making is frequently an astonishing let down. Seemingly as uncertain of how to use her talents as defenders are of what she is going to do with the ball at her feet, France tend to deploy her on the wing, though she sometimes appears at centre-forward, using her sheer pace as a weapon to crack even the most organised defensive units.
Fara Williams – England
Moreso even than her senior midfield colleague Rachel Yankey (English football’s record cap holder), Fara Williams is an utterly class act, a midfielder capable of dominating a game through sheer talent and force of will. Blessed with astonishing athleticism and an outstanding touch, Williams’ eye for goal has yielded 36 goals in 113 appearances, with her ability to strike a ball as cleanly as any other player in the game ensuring that even a few inches of room is enough to turn a game on its head. Nor is she a defensive slouch, possessing an almost preternatural ability to read the game. Along with Kelly Smith, England’s outstanding talent.
Celia Okoyino da Mbabi – Germany
A German citizen since 2004 (she previously held French nationality), Okoyino da Mbabi has taken on the mantle of Prinz and Grings as the highest goalscorer in the current Germany squad. With 41 strikes in just 79 matches and still only 25 years old, she is a footballer with a fearful instinct and an uncanny ability to arrive in the box unchecked. Possessing a devastating eye for goal, tournament top-scorer bets could be heavily influenced towards a player who seems likely to lead the line for Germany for years to come.
Solveig Gulbrandsen – Norway
Gulbrandsen, one of women’s football’s most celebrated stars, retired from international football in 2010 and then – seemingly – from football altogether in 2011 to give birth to her second child. Having been tempted back into the realms of the game as Assistant Coach of Valengra, the midfielder was sounded out about an international recall with Norway seeking to close out qualification for Euro 2013, swiftly reintegrating herself as an integral part of the Norweigan lineup. An Olympic gold-medal winning player in Sydney 13 years ago, Gulbrandsen’s 161 caps have yielded 47 goals and while, at 32, she may no longer possess the dynamism that marked the early stages of her career, her sheer knowledge of the game and competitive instinct ensures that she will be a valuable addition to the Norwegian lineup come the start of the tournament.
Where to Watch
God bless the good old BBC. Having picked up the broadcast rights to Euro 2013, the corporation is throwing their full weight behind it, with 16 live games and further highlights to be shown across the tournament, primarily on BBC3. There has never been, quite frankly, a better opportunity to bring women’s football to the masses and huge congratulations are due to the BBC for taking up the challenge of broadcasting the sport properly. Which basically means, there’s no excuse not to get behind it. Coverage starts with a preview show on Wednesday and the tournament’s profile will be fronted by the brilliant Jacqui Oatley. Bring it on.
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