England’s Euro 2017 qualifying campaign faces two potentially defining moments in the coming days.
Impending home and away fixtures with Serbia should help determine whether Mark Sampson’s side are going to fulfil expectations and top group seven, or simply hope to reach next summer’s European Championship in the Netherlands as one of the best second-placed finishers.
With four games to go, England are one point behind the leaders Belgium – but holding a game in hand – and three ahead of third-placed Serbia.
After finishing third in last summer’s World Cup in Canada the Lionesses have suffered a mini-wobble, somehow managing to rescue a home draw against Belgium – whom they visit in September – this spring before struggling to secure a late win against unfancied Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Sampson believes it is all part of learning to cope with a new type of stress. “There are not many teams in the world we’re not expected to win against now,” England’s coach said. “The players are starting to get used to that pressure.
“It’s something new for us. For the last couple of years, England have been looked at as a team with potential but now we’ve actually delivered big results and consistent performances against the top nations. People see us a major contender for the European Championship and a big scalp.”
With the English domestic WSL having begun a month long mid-season break, Sampson’s players are looking forward to a rest but he suspects they will properly enjoy it only if six points are taken from the two games with Serbia.
“We’re now in a position where there’s a bit more pressure on our qualification group,” he said. “Suddenly people from the outside might be thinking ‘maybe England won’t top this group’. But they are the pressures we’ve got to manage. Handling that pressure will give us invaluable experience. I’m absolutely confident we’ll qualify from this group – and we’ll qualify in top spot.”
Sampson has refreshed his squad slightly with Rachel Daly, the Houston Dash striker, and Nikita Parris, the Manchester City forward both called up for only the second time. Another striker, Arsenal’s Jodie Taylor, returns to the fold following injury along with the midfielders, Birmingham’s Jade Moore and Manchester City’s Izzy Christiansen.
“We’ve selected a squad which I believe can get us six points against Serbia,” said Sampson whose side play at Wycombe Wanderers’ Adams Park on Saturday before travelling to Stara Pazova for the away game on Tuesday. “Serbia will be full of confidence after getting a hard-earned draw in Belgium in their last game so we’ll need to produce good performances to get the wins. But Jade, Izzy and Jodie have been fantastic every time they’ve been called up and will have a big, positive impact on the group.”
In Bosnia, an 87th-minute winner from Karen Carney, the Chelsea winger and England’s most gifted creator, spared considerable anguish. “Those sorts of games are always so difficult,’ Carney said. “Bosnia just totally denied us space and at times they played with five at the back. It was like a game of chess.”
Demi Stokes, the Manchester City full-back – restored to prominence by Sampson in a new, more advanced, role after controversially failing to make the cut for Canada last summer – is confident things will be a little bit more straightforward against Serbia.
“If I’d have moaned about missing the World Cup, or sulked, or let it affect me, that wouldn’t have done me any good,” Stokes said. “So it was just about dusting myself down and getting on with it. I did everything I could to be selected for the World Cup and if I wasn’t what Mark needed at that time, then I’m OK with that.
“But now I feel in a good place. Everything seems to be going well. I feel like my performance levels have gone up too. I’m determined to do well – I don’t want to miss out on the Euros and I’m just trying to do everything I can to give myself a chance of being selected. ”
Helping England beat Serbia twice in four days would do no harm. “We were all disappointed to only draw with Belgium,” Stokes said. “But everyone has used the last two matches as motivation to be better this time round. Everyone’s been brilliant in training this week and the tempo has been excellent. I’m sure we’ll get two good wins.”
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