One major trophy in the bag, another annual gong defended. As preparations go for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, England’s has been about as good as you could get so far.
Wednesday’s 6-1 thrashing of Belgium at Ashton Gate clinched the Arnold Clark Cup for the second successive year. And while nobody within the Lionesses’ camp will claim that it suddenly makes them overwhelming favourites to dethrone the USA in Australia and New Zealand this summer, it is clear that the European champions are primed for a fair old run at the ultimate prize in the game.
Sarina Wiegman might have been very belligerent in the way she chose her starting XI in the triumphant Euro 2022 campaign – just as she had with the Netherlands five years earlier – but she used the Arnold Clark Cup over the last week as an exercise in squad rotation while also keeping the demands for high-level performance high.
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Of her 26-strong group, the Dutchwoman gave game-time to 24 players, with goalkeepers Emily Ramsey and Sandy MacIver the only ones not to get a touch during the three games. But there was little let-up in what was expected, with no allowances for the changing nature of the personnel in the quest for excellence. We’ve seen the performance levels drop so often in the men’s and women’s game in recent years when international managers change things up, but the Lionesses were still easily better than their opponents.
Against South Korea they faced a side who had gone five without defeat and barely conceded a shot on target in that time, but the home side fired in 32 shots in a dominant 4-0 win. Three days later they saw off a stubborn Italy, against dictating play throughout, and the hammering of Belgium capped off a six-day period in which England had threatened the opposition goal on a total of 77 occasions and scored 12 times in the process. They were absolutely relentless.
And the use of the squad allows for Wiegman to foresee more eventualities at the World Cup in July and August. Beth Mead’s recovery timetable after an ACL injury continues to cause some concern, but Lauren James’ rise to prominence shows no sign of slowing, with many tipping the Chelsea star for a Ballon d’Or win in the not-too-distant future. Meanwhile Ella Toone and Alessia Russo – super subs throughout the Euros – have made first-team shirts their own and Rachel Daly is staking a claim for a spot in the forward line.
There’s also the return to form of Euros hero Chloe Kelly to savour, while goals are arriving from all over the field once more. Individually and collectively, things are looking pretty promising all round.
Of course, the World Cup will be played at a higher intensity, with a consistently greater level of opposition. But if England can take this sort of momentum into their Group D games against Haiti, Denmark and China then come knockout time they will be a formidable proposition for anybody.
“I think we are in a good place and the competition in the team is really strong,” Wiegman told reporters after Wednesday’s win. “We still have five months to go but we know we have to step up more because the World Cup will be more of a challenge.”
But this is an England squad built to face challenges, and having run the USA so close in the 2019 World Cup in France, they now feel infinitely better prepared for what lies ahead. Five months of fine-tuning, and hoping Mead makes a full recovery, should have the Lionesses more than ready for a serious run at this country’s first world football title since 1966.
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