Lionesses aiming to close in on WC qualification
England Women are aiming to all but confirm their place at next summer’s Women’s World Cup as they take on Northern Ireland Women at a sold-out Windsor Park on Tuesday night.
The Lionesses have had a perfect qualifying campaign thus far, winning all seven games with no goals conceded. They beat North Macedonia 10-0 in their World Cup qualifier on Friday.
A victory would take them five points clear of Austria – providing they also win their match against Latvia – with two games to play. However, Sarina Wiegman’s side do still have to play Group D’s second-placed side and Luxembourg in their final two qualifiers in September.
If they beat Austria in their penultimate match, it would confirm their place at the 2023 tournament in Australia and New Zealand with a game to spare.
But Northern Ireland face an uphill battle to secure their spot. They sit third in Group D, three points behind Austria. They were beaten 3-1 by the Austrians on Friday, denting their qualification hopes.
While Northern Ireland will arguably need one of their greatest ever performances to take points from England, they will have a sold-out Windsor Park crowd behind them for Tuesday’s game.
Roughly 18,000 fans are expected to cheer on the home side and will mark the second time the women’s team have played at the national stadium since it was redeveloped. Around 3,500 fans watched Northern Ireland beat Latvia 4-0 last September.
It is the second time in World Cup qualifying that Northern Ireland and England have played at their country’s national stadium – the reverse fixture in October, which England won 4-0, was played in front of 23,000 fans at Wembley.
The two sides have met in a recent friendly too. England were big winners again, beating Northern Ireland 6-0 during a friendly at St George’s Park in February 2021 in what was Hege Riise’s first game as interim manager after the departure of Phil Neville.
Wiegman: Windsor Park crowd will test England
While Northern Ireland will be hoping for a bump from their home fans, Wiegman is using the opportunity to help her team communicate in different ways on the pitch.
“As we approach every game, we want to develop our style of play well. We want to play good as a team and again, we want to create lots of chances and concede no goals,” she said.
“It’s going to be a tough game and a great crowd. It’s a big occasion so I’m really looking forward to that, and the team too. It’s the last chance they have to win to have any chance of qualifying… For us, we want to win and get as close as possible to qualifying.
“We have a job to do. We want to be a mature team, we want to play our game and how we want to play football and that won’t change.
“Hopefully the crowd will make lots of noise so it’s a little harder for us to talk to each other so we have to communicate in passing and body language a little more to execute the actions we want to take. So I’m actually really looking forward to it.”
Sarina Wiegman on England team news…
“Don’t expect too many changes. Leah will play, that’s one change and I’ll first talk to the players about the starting line-up and then you’ll know.
“We have one withdrawal in Jill Scott, she won’t be available for Tuesday.”
Williamson: A good warm-up for the Euros
While Tuesday’s game represents a key chance for both sides to boost their qualification for the World Cup, Northern Ireland and England have also been drawn together in this summer’s Women’s European Championships.
It will be the first time Northern Ireland will play in a major tournament, which will be held across England, and Leah Williamson says this week’s game is a good warm-up for their meeting on July 15.
She said: “When it comes to tactics and that side of the game, that’s Sarina’s job. We try to deliver on that so it’s not too much of a thought process from us in terms of just playing the game that’s ahead of us and that’s what we’ll do on Tuesday.
“It’s a very different situation from the Euros and being in a group stage and what’s on those games compared to now.
“But it’s a great practise run, a sell-out crowd, a fantastic occasion and a game that they need to win and so do we. It’s a good warm-up.”
Reflecting on the midweek game, which the new captain watched from the stands, Williamson added: “I thought the girls were great, very professional. We had a job to do, we wanted to create loads of chances and prove to be a clinical team. I think the girls did that.
“It’s never nice to sit out a football match, but when the team plays like that, it’s fairly easy.”
Shiels: World Cup qualification ‘out of the equation’ for Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland Women manager Kenny Shiels has conceded defeat in the quest to make it to next year’s World Cup ahead of taking on free-scoring England.
The Green and White Army retain a miniscule chance of overhauling the Lionesses at the top of Group D but are just three points behind second-placed Austria in the battle for a play-off spot with three games to go.
However, with minnows Luxembourg, Latvia and North Macedonia providing little competition for the top three, Shiels has thrown in the towel regarding making it to the finals in Australia and New Zealand following Friday’s 3-1 loss away to the Austrians.
The 65-year-old is instead viewing Tuesday’s game in isolation and says it would be an “unbelievable achievement” to defeat England in front of an expected crowd of around 16,000 at Windsor Park in Belfast.
“This is not a must-win game because qualification is out of the equation,” said Shiels.
“If we won by five goals, that would be different. But we’re being realistic and we’re not expecting that to happen.
“If we were to beat England, it would be an unbelievable achievement in itself, in isolation to the group.”
Callaghan: These are games you dream about
Captain Marissa Callaghan says Northern Ireland will take a positive approach against Sarina Wiegman’s visitors, with one eye on the future.
“These are the games you dream about,” said the 36-year-old midfielder. “Every player is looking forward to it and will give it their all.
“We have fantastic players in our squad: game changers and goal-scorers. Who knows what can happen? But the big thing is it’s going to be great preparation for going forward and we have a lot to look forward to.
“We took them on at Wembley, so why not take them on at Windsor? We know England are a fantastic side but so are we.
“We go out with a positive attitude, we go out to win games, score goals, defend for our lives, we’re taking this occasion on. I think it’s fantastic for the whole country.”
The Sky Sports News reporters’ view
Paul Gilmour in Belfast: “Realistically Northern Ireland’s chances of World Cup qualification are over after defeat to Austria, but Kenny Shiels and Marissa Callaghan are determined to keep making giant strides.
“Captain Callaghan pointed to the disappointment in the hours after the loss as a sign of how much progress they’ve made and that’ll be highlighted further when they emerge from the tunnel to a sold-out Windsor Park.
“That’s a scenario that would have been barely believable in recent years as Northern Ireland played in front of crowds four times smaller than that.
“They have conceded only one first half goal in the WC campaign, including a goalless opening hour at Wembley, and that will give them confidence that they’re on the right pathway.
“Attention continues to turn to the Euros when they will face England and Austria again but Tuesday night in Belfast is an occasion they’re going to relish.”
Anton Toloui: “This is probably England’s last game before the squad for the Euros is announced.
“Sarina Wiegman has a nucleus of 27 players she’s consistently picked from over the last seven months but getting that number down to 23 will be tough.
“The goalkeepers are set, as are the forwards too. The back-up full-backs, centre-backs and centre-midfielders are the roles with the most competition.
“Jill Scott, Jordan Nobbs and Katie Zelem are potentially fighting for one space in the squad, Niamh Charles will hope to get a chance to impress in defence one more time and there’s a Steph Houghton-shaped hole in the squad to potentially fill too.
“There’s more than the result on the line at Windsor Park on Tuesday night.”
Smith: Wiegman is a winner but England want to challenge themselves
Former England international Sue Smith on The Football Show:
“When you’re playing sides that you’re beating so convincingly, it’s going to be a confidence boost for those players that are scoring lots of goals, but you want to playing against the top sides – that’s where you want to challenge yourself.
“What she keeps saying is she wants to keep a clean sheet, so making sure that they’re defensively solid, and there’s no errors or mistakes. Then going forward, can you create as many opportunities as you can and can you take them and be clinical.
“If you look at the 20-0 and 10-0 [results in qualifying], you would say yes and it could have been so many more. What I love about Sarina Wiegman is that she always wants more. They finished the game and won 20-0 and she says they should have scored more.
“She constantly demands more from the players and that’s what you think will take England to the next level, which is to win something, because she is a winner and every minute detail she will look at, whether that is individually or as a team. She wants to improve them and wants to make them better and that’s certainly a really good trait to have as a manager.”