In a tournament of upsets nothing can be taken for granted, but if England win their Women’s European Championships semi-final on Thursday the trophy is theirs to claim on Sunday. England will face their hosts, the Netherlands, in front of a sell-out 27,000 in Twente Enschede’s stadium. With respect to the other semi-finalists, Denmark and Austria, who kick-off in Breda a few hours earlier, this is a meeting of the tournament’s two best teams.
Both have won all four matches and done so in style. England have scored 11 goals and conceded one. The Dutch, who have also conceded once, have scored five fewer, but their attack is the most exciting of the competition.
As usual England coach Mark Sampson is bullish, so much so he was strolling around the media room, genial and relaxed, long before his appointed press-conference time. When he took over after the disastrous 2013 Euros his positivity seemed false bravado, but it has proved infectious within the team environment and become self-fulfilling. The Dutch are more circumspect, but will be backed by an enthusiastic crowd which has taken to a team that, even more than in England, has revived national pride that had dissipated after poor results in the men’s game.
Sampson has to make two enforced changes. The suspension of Jill Scott threatens to upset the balance of the midfield. The most obvious like-for-like replacement is Jordan Nobbs, but that would break-up her successful partnership with Lucy Bronze. The safe alternative is to bring in either the defensive-minded Jo Potter, or the veteran playmaker Fara Williams. More adventurously Sampson could deploy Izzy Christiansen or Karen Carney, but is likely to feel they are better as options off the bench.
The other change is in goal where Siobahn Chamberlain steps in for Karen Bardsley, the leg-break victim she replaced late in the quarter-final. Chamberlain has done well for England this year and could easily have been given the No.1 shirt from the off.
“You want to play every game, and I did everything to put myself in the best position to do so,” the Liverpool goalkeeper said, “but the manager picks the team. KB has done fantastically well in goal and it’s very unfortunate for her.”
Sampson said he was ‘completely confident’ in both Chamberlain and whoever replaced Scott. “The sky’s the limit for this group. They are world-class. Even the ones who have not played as much as they would like have improved during our time here, that’s how committed they are.”
The Dutch have an English core. Four of the squad, including striker Vivianne Miedema, a summer recruit from Bayern Munich, play for Arsenal. Skipper Mandy van den Berg is at Reading, and flying winger Shanice van de Sanden at Liverpool. The latter has been one of the stars of the tournament, but the stand-out player has been Lieke Martens. Barcelona-bound, on a rumoured salary of £180,000-a-year, her contest with Bronze could be pivotal.
Jodie Taylor actually bumped into goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal this week, her Arsenal team-mate cycling past a Utrecht coffee shop Taylor was in at her recommendation. “We know what they are capable of and are ready for them,” said Danielle van de Donk, another Arsenal player. Nobbs, also a Gunner, responded: “We know their strengths and weaknesses and hopefully can capitalise on that.” As Chamberlain said: “It cuts both ways.”
This tie is a repeat of the 2009 semi-final, won by a goal from Jill Scott. England were then thrashed 6-2 in the final by Germany and the Dutch would have fared no better. Both teams, however, are much improved, benefiting from investment by their FA’s. England aim to show they have improved the most.
Netherlands (4-3-3): Van Veenendaal (Arsenal); Van Lunteren (Ajax), Dekker (Montpellier), Van der Gragt (Ajax) or van den Berg (Reading), Van Es (Twente); Groenen (Frankfurt), Van de Donk (Arsenal), Spitse (Twente); Van de Sanden (Liverpool), Miedema (Arsenal), Martens (Barcelona).
England (4-2-3-1): Bardsley; Bronze, Houghton (all Man C), Bright (Chelsea), Stokes (Man C); Moore (Reading), Potter (Reading); Nobbs (Arsenal), Kirby (Chelsea), White (Birmingham); Taylor (Arsenal).
Referee: S Frappart (France)
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