SPORTS DESK : 12 JULY, 2023, 10:44 PM
Injuries to key players and a dip in form have left England coach Sarina Wiegman with plenty to ponder if the European champions are to win the Women’s World Cup for the first time.
Barring a massive shock when the tournament begins on July 20, England should cruise through a group featuring China, Denmark and debutants Haiti.
But their path through the knockout stages is loaded with danger, with co-hosts Australia or Olympic champions Canada likely opponents in the last 16.
Preparations have not been ideal, a year on from England winning the Euros at a packed Wembley for their first major trophy in women’s football.
In April, England were held 1-1 by Brazil before winning the first-ever women’s Finalissima — a clash between the champions of Europe and South America — on penalties.
Their 30-game unbeaten run was then ended by the Australians and Wiegman’s team failed to break down Portugal in a 0-0 draw in their only warm-up friendly earlier this month.
The Lionesses’ World Cup build-up has also been overshadowed by an ongoing row over bonuses for the players.
Then there are injuries which have ruled out captain Leah Williamson, Euro 2022 Golden Boot winner Beth Mead and Chelsea forward Fran Kirby.
England still have a squad that is the envy of most other teams, but the experience of Ellen White and Jill Scott is also missing from the side that conquered Europe after they retired.
Wiegman, who took her native Netherlands to the World Cup final four years ago before losing to the United States, is publicly unconcerned.
“I think the team has changed so there’s another team dynamic now,” Wiegman said after the Portugal stalemate.
“We have other people in and different qualities. It’s a new situation.”
– Yet to click –
Many of the Lionesses such as Barcelona’s Lucy Bronze and striker Alessia Russo are now household names in their homeland, their faces splashed across advertising campaigns and magazine covers in the build-up to the World Cup.
But the new-look England are yet to click and Wiegman has some big decisions to make if they are to live up to their billing as one of the World Cup favourites.
Russo starred as White’s understudy last summer, scoring four goals as a substitute.
But she was outscored by Aston Villa’s Rachel Daly and Tottenham’s Bethany England in the Women’s Super League last season and was dropped for Daly against Portugal.
In midfield, Wiegman is yet to commit to using the mercurial talent of Lauren James — sister of Chelsea’s Reece James — as either a winger or a number 10.
And at the back, Millie Bright has taken the captain’s armband from Williamson, but has also not played since March due to knee surgery.
Despite those doubts anything other than returning home from the World Cup with the trophy will be seen as a disappointment.
“I think from the outside it might have changed, but for us the expectation of each tournament seems to have stayed exactly the same because we’ve always expected and hoped and worked towards winning gold,” said Bronze, fresh from winning the Champions League in her debut season at Barcelona.
She added: “The likes of USA, France, Spain, Australia — there’s a number of teams with a lot of talented players, and I think we’re with those sets of talented teams.” -BSS
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