In a cluttered football summer schedule, there is one tournament which should not be overlooked. The UEFA Women’s EURO 2017 kicks off this weekend in the Netherlands with 16 nations hoping for glory.
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Germany are the favourites to win at 7/4 in what would be a seventh successive continental crown.
But with a talented French squad, an invigorated England team, and a host country sure to command partisan support, this year’s event is difficult to call.
Five nations are making their debut in the finals, with Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Portugal and Scotland all hoping to make their mark. For the Scots, intriguingly drawn in the same group as England, the absence of Kim Little, a former PFA Women’s Player of the Year and NWSL MVP, is a huge blow.
There is a real togetherness within Mark Sampson’s England team.
And they are expected to challenge for top honours. Naturally, so are Germany, who have one of the best players in the world in their squad: Dzsenifer Marozsan.
While France can boast the supreme talent of Amandine Henry, the Portland Thorns midfielder reads the game arguably better than anyone else.
Make no mistake, this is a tournament true football fans should not miss. Its quality and competitiveness will make the summer football festival complete.
The Netherlands are the favourites to progress from Group A, but it is destined to be a fight, especially given that they have been drawn in the same section as Norway, Denmark and Belgium.
The Dutch have posted some impressive warm up results with easy wins over Austria (3-0) and Wales (5-0), although their standout performance since the turn of the year was undoubtedly their 4-0 success over Iceland, who topped Group 1 of qualifying.
Vivienne Miedema, who has signed for Arsenal from Bayern Munich after 21 goals in 39 matches for the German club, could be the real star of the tournament, while Shanice Van de Sanden has the dynamism to worry opposing defenders.
Norway, though, have the irrepressible Ada Hegerberg to rely on. The Lyon forward netted 18 goals in UEFA club competition in 2016 (one more than Cristiano Ronaldo), helped the French club to the treble this season and joint top scored (10) in qualifying.
Denmark are led by Pernille Harder of Wolfsburg, who completed the double in Germany in 2016/17 and can boast 45 goals from 84 international appearances. Hercreativity will be key to the Danes fortunes, as will Portland Thorns forward Nadia Nadim.
Belgium were the comfortable second placed nation in Group 7 of qualifying behind England, but this is a big step up for a side that still rely on veteran striker Aline Zeler.
The last time Germany failed to lift the European Championships was back in 1993, when they lost on penalties to Italy in the semi-finals.
Since then, Die Nationalelf have proved unbeatable, with six consecutive titles, including a 6-2 mauling of England in the 2009 final. Even without Alexandra Popp (knee injury) and Pauline Bremer (omitted), Steffi Jones, who took over coaching duties after Silvia Neid hung up the clipboard following 2016 Olympic Gold, has so much talent to choose from that Germany should cruise through the group stages.
It’d be great to see Anja Mittag repeat her heroics of 2013 – when she scored the only goal of the final against Norway – but Bayern Munich midfielder Sara Däbrtiz is the one to watch and has all the attributes to shine over the next few weeks.
Sweden should go through alongside Germany, but their reliance on veterans Hedvig Lindahl, Nilla Fischer and Lisa Dahlkvist suggests they have failed to re-energise their squad, while Manchester City striker Kosovare Asllani hasn’t kicked on as many thought she would.
With such a strong top two in the section, Italy, with only one win from their last seven games, and Russia, who’ll look to brilliant but injury prone Elena Danilova, are unlikely to deny the teams who contested the 2016 Olympic final in Brazil.
Champions League winners Lyon provide eight members of the French squad that are – quite rightly – being mooted as the country most likely to topple Germany.
Incredibly, France (at 2/1) have never been beyond the quarter finals of the Euros but have so much strength in depth at the moment it seems inconceivable that they won’t go deeper into the tournament this time around.
Wendie Renard, Griedge M’Bock Bathy and Eugénie Le Sommer all had standout seasons with Lyon, and with the aforementioned Henry, they should make sure France get over what coach Olivier Echouafni has described as ‘this psychological barrier which is weighing us down’, in reference to their previous performances in the finals.
Iceland, with Harpa Þorsteinsdóttir continuing to net regularly (she was joint top scorer in qualifying with 10 goals), were impressive en route to the finals but are missing three key players (Margrét Lára Viðarsdóttir, her sister Elisa, plus Dóra María Lárusdóttir). They made the last eight four years ago and should expect to make it out of the group stages again.
Debutantes, Austria, have only once beaten another nation taking part in the tournament, but fellow first timers Switzerland won this year’s Cyprus Cup, beating South Korea in the final, and narrowly lost to impressive Canadian and Japanese teams in the previous World Cup.
England’s squad has changed little from their third place effort in the last World Cup, with 19 of the 23 who played in Canada making the much shorter trip to the Netherlands.
Preparation for Mark Sampson’s side has been good with a morale boosting win over the USA in the SheBelieves Cup serving notice of England’s quality. The FA WSL may be in the process of switching to a winter format after six years as a summer league, but the Spring Series kept the players in good shape and hasn’t overburdened the squad.
The Manchester City duo of Steph Houghton and Lucy Bronze will be key to England’s fortunes (currently priced at 8/1) while Barcelona bound Toni Duggan will be eager to prove her worth, especially against a Spanish side that will be confident of progressing from Group D alongside England.
Spain, in fact, will be eyeing top spot in the section. They defeated England in the group stages in 2013 and, in Barcelona skipper Marta Torrejón and Paris Saint Germain pair Irene Paredes and Jennifer Hermoso, have experienced tournament performers.
England will also me mindful of Scotland – the pair drew 4-4 in the last meeting four years ago – but Kim Little’s absence is a real negative for Anna Signeul’s team.
Portugal, like Scotland, are making their finals bow and aren’t expected to go far after having only won one of their last seven fixtures.
Predictions and Odds
Despite England’s bullishness and obvious improvement under their current coach, their defeats at the hands of both Germany and France in the last six months suggests they will still come up short.
Les Bleus have a much better record against Germany, and you get the feeling now is the time for France to convert continental club superiority into something tangible on the international stage.