UTRECHT- NETHERLANDS – A classic derby match a long time in the making will unfold with England playing Scotland on Wednesday night at Stadion Galgenwaard in Utrecht. This is the first time Scotland has qualified for a major international tournament, and who better to play in an opening group match than Mark Sampson’s England squad.
Friendships between WSL teammates will have to be put aside as country comes first in a competitive Group D that also features Spain and Portugal. England skipper Steph Houghton will have the task of preventing her club teammate Jane Ross from scoring.
“I think it will be an interesting one,” said Houghton. “Obviously in training at Manchester City we play against each other every single day, and it’s always a tough battle. I’ve got a huge respect for Jane. I think she’s a world-class striker who scores a lot of goals, but ultimately my job tomorrow is to try and stop her and make sure that we get a clean sheet first and foremost.”
Mark Sampson has prepared his team for this fixture with a history lesson on all things Scotland, including a screening of the movie Braveheart. The England gaffer is ready for a battlefield on the pitch, and that means using any possible motivating tools available.
“I’ve never been involved in a game of football that wasn’t a battle,” said Sampson. “We know that it’ll be similar tomorrow. It’s international football. Two attacking teams going up against each other, both determined to win, and our focus is on being the best we can be.
“We’re aware of Scotland, we know their strengths. They’ve got some outstanding players, individual talents, but they’ve also got some areas where we feel we can hurt them. We’ve been focused on those the last couple of days.”
It may be billed as a battle, but that doesn’t always materialize once the whistle blows. Look at Germany and Sweden, who played a sloppy, unorganized 90-minute 0-0 match on Monday in Group B play. There could very well be some nerves and jitters for both England and Scotland.
Scotland is coming in with a ‘We’re happy to be here’ approach. Coach Anna Signuel wants her players to enjoy it and take everything in while at the EUROs. Players like captain Gemma Fay have waited their entire careers for an opportunity to play at top-level tournament.
“Yeah, it’s the biggest game in my career,” said Fay. “It’s a fantastic game to be a part of. We are so looking forward to it.”
If Scotland is to take a positive statistic heading into the match, England have not won an opening match of a major tournament in twelve previous attempts. Sampson was politely reminded of this while holding court with the press in Utrecht on Tuesday.
“Finding a way to win every game is going to be really important,” said Sampson. “We’ve got to play the opponents in front of us. Scotland are in front of us tomorrow. They’re stood in our way, and we’ve got to navigate this game, find a solution for what Scotland are going to bring to us, and make sure we come out on top.
“If we get the performance level right, the result will take care of itself. If we can’t hit the heights of our performance, we’ll have to find a way to win this one because we are in a difficult group.”
Scotland will be without Arsenal Ladies midfielder Kim Little, who will miss the tournament with a torn ACL. Little’s absence and the absence of Jen Beattie will make the challenge of getting a result difficult for the 21st FIFA-ranked country. Not only is Scotland missing Kim Little’s contributions, but Mark Sampson has a soft spot as well.
“Look, Kim’s an excellent player,” admitted Samspon. “It’s a disappointment to everyone in the tournament that she’s not here. We’d love to see her, and obviously so would Scotland. Scotland have got some good players, trust me. We’re aware of all their talents, let’s not forget the kid at the back [Ifeoma Dieke] was picked for the GB Team in 2012. Kaz [Caroline] Weir is always one of the top players in our domestic competition. Steph has spoke about Jane, and Lisa Evans played in Champions League on a regular basis. They’ve got a lot of talent on that team.
“As far as I’m concerned, with the talent they’ve got, they shouldn’t really be here for the first time. They should have been at 2015 [World Cup] and 2013 [EUROs]. Now they’re here, looking to qualify and looking to scrap with us, Spain, and Portugal for one of those top two spots.”
Scotland is here because they deserve to be here. Anyone can turn up and earn a result. While the press might not be giving Scotland a fighting chance, Houghton isn’t about to take them lightly with three crucial points on the line.
“We know that Scotland have big players who can change games,” she said. “We have to control what we can control. Let’s focus on ourselves and make sure that we get some points on the board come tomorrow.”
There’s always something about nothing when the likes of England and Scotland get together for an international match. The time has come for Scotland to show that they can compete with England, a neighbor who they would love to nick a result off.
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