England ready to harness ‘exciting moment’ as Lionesses go in search of Euro 2022 glory

Sarina Wiegman remains unbeaten as head coach with the side but the real tests lie ahead

England expects, as usual, but this time may have good reason to.

Sarina Wiegman’s side are one of several in the open field of favourites for the Women’s European Championship. But when the competition is this tight, home advantage could be critical. And until a potential Wembley final at the end of this month, that advantage will never be more keenly felt than in the curtain raiser against Austria, to be played in front of a capacity 74,120 crowd at Old Trafford.

Things should at least go better than the last time the tournament was on these shores in 2005. Hope Powell’s Lionesses won their opening group game on the other side of town at the City of Manchester Stadium but lost their remaining two and exited early. With crowds twice the size now set to turn out to watch, the excitement, hype and expectation is of an altogether greater magnitude 17 years later. English women’s football is in a much stronger place, as are England themselves.

Even so, that serves as a reminder of how pressure can work against a host nation and it would only be natural for captain Leah Williamson to feel some apprehension. “We're not robots,” the Arsenal defender admitted to an Old Trafford press conference room where there was standing room only. “There's going to be nerves. We're aware of the expectation from external sources but it is all about enjoying it. If I wasn’t allowed to enjoy it, why would I do it?”

Preparations have been underway in earnest since the end of the domestic season more than a month ago. There is a feeling of readiness and of confidence within the camp. “We've put in the work over the last however many weeks and ticked the boxes we need to tick, knowing how big a moment it is,” Williamson said. “We're ready for it. Pressure is a privilege. It's something we're embracing. That comes with it, it's part of the job.”

Williamson seems ready for all that the three-and-a-half weeks ahead could bring but if she needs any tips on dealing with the expectations, she only needs to look to her coach. Wiegman has experience of handling the pressure that comes with playing host. Her reputation in international management was forged by winning the last Euros with the Netherlands in the Netherlands five years ago, then enhanced by a runners-up finish at the World Cup three years ago.

Wiegman is confident her players can cope with stress and strain of playing a tournament in front of their own public. “We will get a feeling of the stadium then we start tomorrow and I can't wait," she said.

“We will just do the same things we always do and focus on our style of play as a team and as individuals. We also know the tournament starts tomorrow and we have been waiting for such a long time so it is an exciting moment. It would be strange if we weren't excited."

Yet such is the pace of change and development within the game, the England manager knows she cannot rely on her past experience of not only matching but surpassing what is expected of her. “The game has developed so quickly and it’s good that many countries are favourites for this tournament because the level is so high,” Wiegman said. “It’s hard to predict what it will look like at the end of the tournament. I hope as an England fan it’s us.”

Williamson’s rise has been equally meteoric. The England captain did not play at the last Euros. Her only involvement at the World Cup was a cameo in the last-16 against Cameroon. Now, she has replaced the injured Steph Houghton as captain. Her name can be found on crisp packets, drinks bottles and on one side of Tower Bridge as part of a pre-tournament publicity campaign. “Not normal, is it? But it’s good, it means the visibility of us and a team and the women’s game is being recognised as it should be.”

Wiegman’s use of her captain is one of the talking points heading into the opening game. Typically a centre-half at club level, she has been used in midfield by her new manager internationally. Where would she like to play? “If it was that easy”, she joked, before offering up a diplomatic answer. “I'd like to be on the pitch, playing for England… I'm sure tomorrow when I look back it will be a moment I will remember forever.” Expectations are mounting but Williamson and her team-mates feel ready to meet them.

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