The Women’s European Championship is finally upon us as the top stars on the continent prepare to do battle.
The tournament is being held in England and offers a chance to show the football world just how far the women’s game has progressed with hundreds of thousands of fans expected to turn out to watch Europe’s best.
talkSPORT will be at the heart of it all, with all of England and Northern Ireland’s games across the network.
Among talkSPORT’s experts for the tournament is ex-Leeds United star Lucy Ward, who can’t wait for the competition to get underway.
“I’ve covered Women’s World Cups and Euros since around 2007 and most of the time when you experience it you’re out in the country that it’s in and you don’t get to feel what’s going on at home,” she told talkSPORT.com.
“The most exciting thing will just be feeling the vibe while you’re here.
“It’s going to be the biggest one yet in terms of the Euros, people watching and the level of quality on show so it’s how it feels and getting that vibe.”
Home advantage could be a big factor for England during the competition, but according to Ward, playing in front of their own fans could be detrimental as pressure continues to rise.
“It’s massive. I did the warm up game for talkSPORT at Elland Road and that was probably just over half full, but the crowd was incredible. The energy from the crowd, it was a real mixture of people with young people and parents, but the energy was there.
“It can be a positive and a negative. It’s positive because it grows the game and the surrounding aspects of having a home Euros, but it can be a negative as it can put a lot of pressure on the England girls. There’s a lot of funding that’s been put into the WSL and this group is probably the best that there has been in terms of how they’ve been prepared, but it adds a bit of pressure on.
“It depends how the girls can handle that and in Sarina Wiegman they have a manager who has done that before in 2017 in the Netherlands and she did incredibly well.
“The whole country went crazy but the players were kept on an even keel by her and if she can do that with the England players then England can be really successful.”
Asked if they can handle the pressure, Ward added: “I think they can.
“In 2019 some of the players struggled to handle the added eyes on the tournament and for years and years there’s been a lot of cheerleading because you need to grow the game during those times, but in recent years since it’s gone full-time there’s more expectation on the England players and with that comes scrutiny.
“It’s what we want. We want radio, TV and the media to critique these players, but some of the girls weren’t ready for that in 2019. They’ve been through that tournament now and are coming into this one with a little bit more experience. They all have tournament experience at one level or another and I think that they’re able to cope with that.”
Lucy Ward’s Euros predictions
Frontrunners to win the tournament?
“My heart says England, but I’ve got a little bit of a feeling about Sweden.
“They’re under the radar at the moment, but they have experienced players and came second in the Olympics. It’s a similar sort of climate as well, it won’t be too hot and I think that they’ll be confident.
“I’d like to say England, but England or Sweden, I’d say.
“Elsewhere, Germany have got Tabea Waßmuth who is a young forward who plays for Wolfsburg and France have got Marie-Antoinette Katoto who could be one of the stars. If they can get it together, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
“For the Netherlands, you’ve got Vivianne Miedema. There’s just so many good players playing at the top of their game at the Euros in England. I can’t wait.”
“Katoto from France scores goals for fun.
“Ellen White – if England go far in the competition and get to the semi-finals which is the least that we’re probably expecting, Ellen White will probably score the goals for England so she’ll probably be up there.
“I think it’ll be between those two.”
Dark horse of the competition?
“Norway, along with Sweden are my dark horses for the tournament. No one is really talking about them but they’ve got the players to win the tournament and obviously Sweden won silver in the Olympics as well.
“Ada Hegerberg, who plays for Norway has just gone back into the Norway set-up after five years after issues with their equality and how their football federation worked, but she’s one of the best forwards in the world so it’ll be really interesting to see how she comes back into it.
“But you can’t ever look past Germany. They are still getting used to their new coach and in some of these tournaments the youth tournament winners are now coming through to the first team. You could say the same for England as well.
“You can’t discount Germany because their mentality is to win and if they can get on a roll then they’ll do well.
“France will do well, and if Katoto is scoring then they could go far.
“Then you’ve got Spain. They’re the bookies’ favourites, but they’re a new team into the FIFA top rankings so I don’t know if they’ll come through and win the tournament straight away or if they’re building up over the last couple of tournaments.”
With hundreds of thousands of fans around England expected to turn out during the tournament, the Lionesses will be hopeful of going all the way in the coming weeks.
A large factor in coming away with the trophy will be coach Sarina Wiegman who Ward believes could make the difference for the Lionesses.
She said: “I think they’ll go into it thinking that they can win it. Fundamentally it’s winning six games which sounds easy, but they’ll predominantly get harder.
“They’ll be disappointed if they don’t make the final, I think.
“Simply because it’s at home, it’s a step further than they reached in the World Cup in 2019 and with the Euros you obviously don’t have teams like the USA in there, so they’ll expect to get to the final and then it’s a one-off game which is hard to predict.
“Sarina Wiegman is the right manager at the right time for England.
“She’s got experienced players and has experience herself of managing a group of players, managing their expectations, managing what’s going on around them in terms of the expectations of the country.
“If England start progressing through the tournament then every single person that’s interested in football will be involved because we want to win a tournament and so that will build.
“I think that she’s the manager who has the mentality to handle a group of players and that’s our big hope this summer.”
But before harbouring any ambitions of winning the trophy, England must conquer their group.
Clashes with Austria, Norway and Northern Ireland loom for the Lionesses, with Ward believing that England have what it takes to progress with relative ease.
She said: “Out of all of them, Northern Ireland are probably the lowest ranked and so I think that Austria in the first game, anything can happen.
“England will be expected to beat Austria but they’ve got some good players, so there’s not really any easy games.
“Norway will be tough because they’ve got players who play at the top level, whether it’s the WSL or all around the world, then you’ve got Northern Ireland.
“Northern Ireland are not expected to beat England but by then the hope would be that England have six points.
“I think they’ll beat Austria, maybe a draw against Norway and then they’ll beat Northern Ireland, so we’ll see what goes from there, but Northern Ireland will be tough just because it’s a home nation.”
Predicted England XI
With the Lionesses starting their European Championship campaign on Wednesday night against Austria, Wiegman has a number of decisions to make regarding her starting XI.
With that in mind, Ward revealed to talkSPORT the team that she would select for their opener at Old Trafford.
She said: “I think that Mary Earps will play in goal, Lucy Bronze will be right back and then Millie Bright and Alex Greenwood at centre back. I think she’ll choose Rachel Daly at left back because Demi Stokes has been struggling with an injury.
“Then it’ll be Keira Walsh, Leah Williamson and Fran Kirby at number 10, then up front from left to right, Lauren Hemp, Ellen White if she’s fit and then Beth Mead on the right.
“From that I can see Chloe Kelly and Ella Toone making a difference to the forward line, but I think that the rest of it will be set.”
Ward added: “Sarina Wiegman, unless there’s injuries, she doesn’t like to change but she’s got no sentiment whatsoever.
“For the Netherlands she dropped her captain after the first game of the Euros when she didn’t play that well in 2017, so if someone isn’t playing well then she will drop them.
“I’m a little bit disappointed that Steph Houghton is not in the squad because she could help younger players in dealing with that, but I think it’s quite a nice mix of younger players and more experienced players as well.”
Euro 2022 live on talkSPORT
Every England match of the Women’s Euros 2022 Championship will be live on talkSPORT.
Sam Matterface will be lead commentator for England games, alongside co-commentators Lianne Sanderson and lead presenter Adrian Durham, while Faye Carruthers will be reporting live pitchside with all the latest England news.
Meanwhile, Joe Shennan and Lucy Ward will lead commentary for Northern Ireland games.