England are a better team than in 2017, when they went on to reach the semi-finals. Under Phil Neville they play with more variety, have greater depth and, with the best specialist conditioning FA money can buy, are fitter and sharper. The only doubts are whether Neville’s rotation has muddled the team and whether they can really play out from the back against top opposition. That seems especially pertinent given England men’s problems in Guimaraes on Thursday.
But Scotland are far better than on that day in Utrecht, not least as they have a fully fit squad, rather than the depleted XI Jodie Taylor put to the sword. Other factors are the work of new coach Shelley Kerr and the Scottish Government funding previously amateur domestic players. But just as important, they finally believe they belong in this company.
This is the first Scottish team to reach a football World Cup since Craig Brown’s men in 1998 and there has been a wave of support for Kerr’s squad. It was notable that Steve Clarke, the new Scotland men’s coach, said after taking the job he wanted to emulate the women.
This is the best women’s team in Scottish history, full of players not just based in England’s fully professional WSL but playing for medal-winning clubs too. Arsenal’s Kim Little is as talented a player as any in England, Chelsea’s Erin Cuthbert one of the most promising young players, and Rachel Corsie plays for one of the leading US clubs in Utah Royals. Scotland qualified ahead of Switzerland and Poland, who have two of the best forwards in Europe in, respectively, Chelsea’s Ramona Bachmann and Wolfsburg’s Ewa Pajor, and need not feel overawed by England.
With potentially three teams qualifying, there is every chance Kerr’s side will become the first Scottish team to make it out of a World Cup group stage.
While that will constitute success in their first finals, England talk publicly of wanting to win the competition. Their first target is to be among the top three European teams – that will earn them a trip to Japan for next year’s Olympics – but anything less than the quarter-finals will be a failure. Winning the group is thus imperative as second place is likely to mean facing Canada or the Netherlands in the last 16, both of whom are contenders. The FA will be desperate for England to avoid an early exit as that would leave them with a difficult decision on whether to retain Neville.
He has done most things right after his unexpected appointment but England are hosting the 2021 Euros and cannot afford to waste the exposure that will bring.
To win the group England need to win this match.
Neville has several selection issues to deal with but the big question is whether he backs Fran Kirby and Taylor, proven big-game players but short of form.
Kerr, meanwhile, must decide whether to go toe-to-toe, or be more wary. If US-bound Claire Emslie plays ahead of Leanne Crichton she’ll have taken the more daring option.