Steph Houghton urges England to top their World Cup qualifying group

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Sonia Twigg, PA
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Steph Houghton believes England “need to be in that top spot” in their 2023 World Cup qualifying group, which also includes Northern Ireland.

Austria, North Macedonia, Latvia and Luxembourg will join them in Group D of the European section of qualifying as they look to reach the finals in Australia and New Zealand.

The Lionesses reached the semi-finals in 2019 before being beaten by eventual winners the United States, while Northern Ireland are aiming to reach their first finals having ended their major tournament duck earlier this year by qualifying for Euro 2022.

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“I think for us it’s a pretty tough draw,” England Women’s captain Houghton said.

“I think the likes of Austria, who have done previously well in the last European Championships, they’re definitely an up and coming team that we’ve played quite a few times over the last few years and in previous qualifying campaigns.

“Ultimately, Northern Ireland as well, great for them to qualify for the Euros and in play-offs, obviously delighted for some of the girls that we’ve played with and against in the WSL.”

Houghton added: “Ultimately we need to be in that top spot come the qualification at the end of the table, so it gives us the best chance of participating in another World Cup and have the chance of hopefully showing everybody the team that we are and I think it’s up to us as players.

Ellen White
Ellen White thinks Northern Ireland will be a different proposition when England face them in World Cup qualifying (FA handout/PA)

“We’ve got the new manager coming in which for us I think, that’s going to allow us not to become complacent, she’s going to want us to perform at the highest standard whenever possible and as players and individuals we’ve got to make sure that we’re at the top of our game no matter who we play we approach each game the same.”

Ellen White, who was the joint golden boot winner at the 2019 World Cup believes Northern Ireland could be a completely different entity to when she scored a hat-trick and England won 6-0 at St George’s Park.

“Northern Ireland, obviously we faced them recently but when these qualifiers do come around they can be a completely different side in terms of who we face. Full of confidence and momentum obviously from reaching the Euros, so it’ll be an exciting one, really exciting to face them,” said White.

Scotland, who qualified for the last World Cup in France, were drawn in Group B with Spain, Ukraine, Hungary and the Faroe Islands.

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Wales, who have not yet reached a major tournament, will be looking for a change in fortunes after being drawn in Group I alongside France, Slovenia, Greece, Kazakhstan and Estonia.

The Republic of Ireland were drawn in Group A, which contained Spain, Finland, Slovakia and Greece, and have also never qualified for a World Cup or European Championship.

Europe will supply up to 12 teams of the expanded finals, which will feature 32 nations for the first time.

The winners of each of the nine European qualifying groups will automatically qualify while each runner-up will be entered into play-offs to decide two more places.

A final runner-up will take part in a 10-team tournament in Australia and New Zealand in February 2023, when they will play against teams from the other federations for one of the last three places.