The question in all sports has been that once you break through and win, does winning again become easier? Is the mental block gone? Or does the pressure simply build even more, as triumphs go from hoped for to expected? This is only one of the few things that England will be wrestling with at the World Cup.
If England were full-strength, they would probably be the main favorite to lift the trophy. As it is, they are second favorites, according to your local/digital bookie, behind the Yanks. That’s mostly due to the fact that they are not at full strength.
Perhaps no team has been more bitten by the injury curse of this World Cup than England. They’ll be without their captain Leah Williamson in defense. They’ll be without Beth Mead in attack, one of the stars of their Euros title last summer. Fran Kirby will also not be in the squad in midfield. Millie Bright, who will probably take over for Williamson as captain and play in central defense, missed the end of the season with Chelsea through injury and will be playing herself back into shape in the group stages. It won’t be quite the same team that blitzed their way through last summer’s tourney.
But this being England, they have answers. Ella Toone will step into Kirby’s attacking midfield role. There are options at the #9 with either Alessia Russo or Rachel Daly, the latter making one of the more fascinating conversions as she was England’s left back last year but after crashing in 22 goals in 22 games for Aston Villa in the WSL this past season she’s now in contention to be the central striker. Lauren James, who may be one of the breakout stars of this tournament, could join the front line where Mead once was, but so could Chloe Kelly, who scored the winning goal in the Final at Wembley last August. Bethany England, yes England for England, is another option in the front three, and after a midseason switch to Tottenham scored 12 goals in 12 games. There are alternatives, let’s say.
What England still have is possibly the best midfielder in the world in Keira Walsh, who was a regular starter for the best team in the world, Barcelona. So was Lucy Bronze, who still tears up and down the right wing from right back. Georgia Stanway is also still here, providing all sorts of punch in midfield to dovetail with Walsh’s laid-back control behind Toone or Russo or however manager Sarina Weigman wants to run it.
It’s not the first 11 that England fans are worrying about, but behind that. Wiegman was downright robotic in her use of her team in the Euros, where it became metronomic when Russo, Kelly, Jill Scott, Toone, and Alex Greenwood would come off the bench. Scott has retired, and the other four all very well might be in the starting 11 now. Lauren James could be quite the weapon off the bench, so could England or Daly, but midfield reinforcements aren’t quite as strong. And England can’t have another injury in the backline either. There’s already one major tournament rookie in Jess Carter at left back, replacing Daly as she goes up front. England wouldn’t want to have to turn more of it over to those in the deep water for the first time.
Fatigue might also be an issue. For some of these players, this will be the third straight summer of international competition. Bronze, Daly, Bright, Walsh, Hemp, Stanway, and Toone all were on the Great Britain Olympic team in 2021 and the Euros last year, and all figure to play major roles in the World Cup. That’s a lot of soccer.
A smaller concern is that the team hasn’t really been on song of late. They haven’t scored in their last two matches, a friendly loss and draw to Australia and Portugal, respectively. While Daly or Russo or England have collected a heavy bag of goals with their clubs, none have yet carried the mail as the country’s main striker. There is a small feeling that the team was primed and pointed to win the Euros at home, and may have gone slightly off the boil for this one. Remains to be seen.
Still, England might be the only team that can claim to have more talent than the US, and as long as that midfield remains healthy and in form, there are a few teams that can live with them. The draw could get tricky. A round of 16 date with either Australia or Canada is not exactly an easy assignment. The quarters could see any of Germany, Brazil, or France. If England are going all the way in this, they’ll definitely earn it.
If you’re looking for an underdog to get behind, England’s main rival in Group D Denmark might be for you. This is a fun team that is pretty intent on being fun, as they attack relentlessly. While their World Cup qualifying group was hardly the toughest, the Danes blew it away by the combined score of 40-2 in eight matches.
It all starts with Pernille Harder, at one point the most expensive women’s player in the world after her transfer to Chelsea a few years ago (she’s headed to Bayern this summer). Lately, she’s been deployed as something of a false 9 for the national team, where she can better launch the wide attackers in this team into lightning-quick forays in the opposing half. Those wingers are likely to be Nicoline Sorensen and Janni Thomson, but there are other options. Sorensen’s Everton teammate, Karen Holmgaard, pulls all the strings as the deepest midfielder. Teams that go hellbent for leather in a short tournament like this can flame out spectacularly, but Denmark have something of a soft landing here once they get around playing England.
China are a faded power in something of a rut. They haven’t won any of their last four matches, all friendlies against World Cup opposition. However, they are the reigning Asian Cup champions, where they had to kneecap regional power Japan in the semis on penalties.
They will go as far as Wang Shuang can take them, who is unquestionably their best player. She plays for Louisville in the WSL, who tend to use her out wide but China puts her right in the engine room as the #10 and ask her basically to create everything.
Haiti are a wonderful story, however big of an underdog in this group they may be. The team has overcome corruption, actual financial crimes, the massive earthquake that crippled the entire country, and a sexual abuse scandal revolving around the federation’s president that saw him booted for life but then reinstated, to be here. They have at least one major star in Melchie Dumornay, who has torn up the French League to the point that Lyon has signed her for next season. They are up against it in this group, but given Dumornay’s and Nerilia Mondesier’s skills up front, the other three teams in this group can’t fall asleep at the back or they will get punished on the break and Haiti could spring a surprise or two. It’s enough of a surprise that they’re here at all, but once you’ve come this far…