England expects as wide-open tournament begins

Shifting power balance also puts Spain and France in the equation

There was a time when the only question to ponder ahead of the women’s European Championships was who would Germany beat in the final. Before 2017 they made it to eight out of nine, winning them all, their stranglehold on the competition seemingly unbreakable.

But 2017 signalled a major shift in the traditional European hierarchy with the Netherlands and Denmark reaching their first ever final, the Dutch crowned champions, and Austria making it to the last four on their tournament debut. The Germans and the only other two nations to ever win the competition, Sweden and Norway, were ousted by the upstarts.

Now, Euro 2022 promises to be even more competitive, three nations who have never won the tournament – Spain, England and France – among the favourites, their progress in recent years largely down to the growing strength of their domestic leagues.

As hosts England will, of course, carry the burden of expectation and if nerves get the better of them then Norway and Austria could make life difficult for them in a group that is completed by first time qualifiers Northern Ireland.

But England have been loudly knocking on the door of major tournament success in recent years, reaching the semi-finals of the last three, including the 2019 World Cup. And in Sarina Wiegman, Phil Neville’s successor, they have a manager who has no little pedigree having led the Netherlands to their 2017 triumph and to the final of the 2019 World Cup.

While Wiegman has been talking up England’s chances, Jorge Vilda has been playing down those of his Spanish side when, he reminds anyone who will listen, the best his country has ever done in the tournament was a semi-final place 25 years ago.

But they’ve come a long way since then, the bulk of the team made up of Barcelona players who won the Champions League last season and reached this year’s final.

And in Alexia Putellas they have, by common enough consent, the world’s greatest player, the attacking midfielder the current Ballon d’Or holder. They are, though, without Jennifer Hermoso, their record goalscorer who was ruled out with a knee injury earlier this month.

France, meanwhile, must do without the brilliant Lyon pair of Amandine Henry and Eugenie Le Sommer, but that was the choice of coach Corinne Diacre, a divisive figure since being appointed to the job five years ago.

She insisted they were omitted for footballing reasons, but the lingering bad blood between her and both players since the last World Cup, Henry in particular publicly critical of the manager, is the much more likely reason for their exclusion.

What impact this will have on France’s prospects at Euro 2022, what the level of morale is in the camp, remains to be seen. It could all go belly-up, much as it did for Raymond Domenech and his rebellious French crew at the 2010 World Cup. Or a hugely gifted squad, which still includes five players from Lyon who have won six of the last seven Champions Leagues – including captain and vastly experienced centre-half Wendie Renard, could finally live up to its potential.

What of the other contenders? Well, the Netherlands still have the core of the team that won in 2017, including player of the tournament Lieke Martens of Barcelona and one of the game’s greatest strikers, Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema.

While England are now coached by Wiegman, the woman who led the Netherlands to that 2017 success, the Dutch went English for her successor, Mark Parsons’ achievements with Portland Thorns in the United States the chief factor in him earning his first international job.

Sweden, in the same group as the Netherlands, won the inaugural European Championships in 1984 and have been runners-up three times since, most recently in 2001.

So, in terms of gathering silverware, they’re not quite the force they once were, but they’re still ranked as Europe’s top nation, second only to the United States in the world list, finished third at the 2019 World Cup and only lost last year’s Olympic final to Canada on penalties.

They’ve named a squad jammed with experience, captained by 37-year-old Caroline Seger who has over 200 caps to her name, and have more than a few tipsters reckoning they could slip under the radar and add to their 1984 crown.

Meanwhile, you know what they say: never write off the Germans. And for all the talk of them being a fading force, they’re still ranked fifth in the world and fourth in Europe.

But their chances of returning to former glories haven’t been helped by the absence of two of their key midfielders, Lyon’s Dzsenifer Marozsan, who is injured, and Chelsea’s Melanie Leupolz, who is pregnant.

All but two of their squad, captained by striker Alexandra Popp, are German-based, the majority from Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich. They’re in a tough group, Spain and Denmark likely to push them hard for a top two placing, although Finland might find the going too tough.

Norway are one of the more intriguing contenders in this tournament, five years on from a calamitous effort that saw them lose all three of their group games and fail to score a single goal.

But the exceptional talent that is Lyon’s Ada Hegerberg has returned to the fold, after refusing to play for her country for the last five years, so her attacking partnership with Barcelona’s Caroline Graham Hansen should make them a significantly greater threat up top.

Denmark, Italy and Austria are unlikely to win the tournament, but could cause a hiccup or two for the big guns along the way, while Switzerland, Iceland, Belgium, Finland, Northern Ireland and Portugal, who replaced Russia in the line-up, will hope to defy their ‘no-hopers’ tag.

Whatever the outcome, it’s a long way from wondering who Germany will beat in the final.

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times