England were singing along to ABBA in the dressing room after Monday’s 8-0 win over Norway secured qualification for the quarter-finals, but Northern Ireland would be wrong to think that is a sign the Lionesses could take their eye off the ball tonight.
The game is a dead rubber for England, who face either Denmark or Spain in Brighton next Wednesday for a place in the last four, but although head coach Sarina Wiegman has the luxury of changing her whole XI and resting the players from that record win, such a plan is not in her thinking.
“I believe in rhythm,” Wiegman said. “I think when you have nine days in between the Norwegian game and the quarter-finals that’s too long. You need more rhythm and keep the focus, and keep playing. So you couldn’t expect lots of rotations. During the game, probably, but not before the start.”
That is probably the last thing Northern Ireland wanted to hear, as they go into this final game at their first major tournament still looking for their first point. They lost 4-1 to Norway in their opening match, so a full-strength England side is a daunting prospect.
“I expect it,” said Northern Ireland manager Kenny Shiels, when quizzed about Wiegman’s plans to keep changes to a minimum.
“It’s traditional, especially for Dutch coaches not to change things, especially if it’s going well.”
Shiels is right and Wiegman has form in this. In 2017, when she led Holland to Euros glory, Wiegman made just two changes for the final group game despite the Dutch having won their first two.
One of those was enforced because Desiree van Lunteren was feeling ill, while the other was Wiegman dropping captain Mandy van den Berg. Lieke Martens, Holland’s star forward, played despite having just recovered from an ankle injury.
They were bold calls from Wiegman, but she has never been afraid of big decisions and going strong against Northern Ireland is another example of that.
England’s biggest fear is that one of their star players, such as the tournament’s top scorer Beth Mead, is injured in a game that essentially means nothing.
“But that’s always the case,” was Wiegman’s response to such a scenario. “Always things can happen at the level we play.
“Of course we don’t hope for that, but the priority is to keep rhythm and stay connected, communicating on and off the pitch.”
Wiegman can take that bold stance because of the strength in depth she has. There are several strong XIs at this tournament, but few can better England when it comes to players in reserve, so Alessia Russo, Chloe Kelly and Ella Toone are unlucky not to have started a game.
Given that emphatic win in Brighton, the desire to keep momentum going makes sense.
Everyone has sat up and taken notice of the Lionesses following that result — be that fans at home or fellow contenders for Euro 2022 — and now feels like the moment for England to keep their foot on the gas. A damp squib of game, particularly on a Friday night under the lights, would not be ideal building into next week’s quarter-final.
“It’s important that we make a mark and show teams that they need to fear us,” said Lauren Hemp.
“It’s great to have so many fans already, but it’s important we get many joining along the journey as well and hopefully we’ll do that throughout.”
By thumping Norway, England have marketed themselves as entertainers and Northern Ireland is another chance to put on a show.
What we have said all along is we want to make the nation proud.
Against Norway, when they were free from the pressure of the opening game, Wiegman’s side were devastating in attack as they let the shackles off.
Of course, there will be even less pressure on the Lionesses this evening and that could mean even more goals.
“First we start with playing well, scoring goals and we want to win the game,” said Wiegman. “Then after that concept, we want to play well too. And if we play well, then we entertain everyone. What we have said all along is we want to make the nation proud.”
England are on the charge at Euro 2022, and they have no plans to slow down.