“It was written in the stars!”
Lucy Bronze was spot on with her assessment when, many would say inevitably, England and Northern Ireland were placed in the same group for next summer’s Women’s Euro 2022.
The two teams are the only representatives of the home nations in the tournament and will meet at Southampton’s St Mary’s on 15 July.
They are sides with very different expectations. Hosts England are among the tournament favourites and Northern Ireland the lowest-ranked side in the competition.
So what can they expect from a group that also contains Austria and Norway, what else stands out from the draw – Group B looks tasty! – and what could the knockout stages look like?
|Group A||England, Norway, Austria, Northern Ireland|
|Group B||Germany, Spain, Denmark, Finland|
|Group C||Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia|
|Group D||France, Italy, Belgium, Iceland|
Where will England and Northern Ireland play?
For Northern Ireland, this is very straightforward. Being put in position four in Group A means they will play every game at St Mary’s.
England, on the other hand, will have some travelling to do, with the tournament opener against Austria at Old Trafford on 6 July, then a trip south to Brighton’s Amex Stadium to face Norway on 11 July, before heading along the coast for the Northern Ireland showdown on 15 July.
Will Austria and Norway be tricky?
Austria – rank: 21st
Austria, third seeds in the group and semi-finalists in 2017, will be up against it when they take on England at Old Trafford in the opening game of the tournament in front of what should be a full house to cheer on the Lionesses.
For Northern Ireland, Austria are probably the one team Kenny Shiels’ side will have wanted after a superb 2-2 draw in Belfast on Tuesday. Despite the gulf in rankings, the Irish part-timers stunned Austria to take a 2-1 lead, which they held until injury time, as the difference in fitness shone through.
Nicole Billa, 2021 German Player of the Year, is one to watch in a side littered with Bundesliga talent. You can’t write them off.
Norway – rank: 12th
With BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year nominee Caroline Graham Hansen running the show, Norway are dangerous opposition and their meeting with England in Brighton will almost certainly decide who tops the group.
England dumped the Scandinavians out of the World Cup in 2019 with a comfortable 3-0 victory, but Martin Sjogren’s side came out on top in a friendly two months later as Barcelona star Hansen scored a late winner.
For Northern Ireland, Norway offer a chance to show just how far they have come under Shiels, having suffered 6-0 defeats against them in the early stages of his tenure in qualifying for the Euros.
It will be a big day on 7 July as Irish dreams of playing at a Euros become a reality in their first match at a major tournament.
What are England and Northern Ireland’s prospects?
For England, progressing as winners is the only option from a favourable-looking group. In Northern Ireland (27th) and Austria (12th), they will face the lowest seeded teams from their particular pots before the draw, and Norway will be seen as far preferable to either Spain or Sweden, who were possible opponents.
The Lionesses overcame Northern Ireland 4-0 at Wembley last week, despite long resistance from the visitors, and England put in their best performance of the 2019 World Cup when beating Norway 3-0 in the quarter-finals. Sarina Wiegman will have the opportunity to measure her side against Austria next month, when they meet in Sunderland for a World Cup qualifier.
While Shiels has produced a miracle to guide Northern Ireland to a first major finals, it will be an extremely tough ask to progress out of the group.
NI are the lowest-ranked team in the competition, and even though they are aiming to move full-time from January, they are going up against three accomplished sides who are full of top talent.
In their favour, having all three games in Southampton is a bonus and playing England and Austria, who NI will fancy getting a result against, just before the Euros will provide an added incentive. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
Who could England and Northern Ireland face in the knockout stages?
This is where things get interesting.
Whoever qualifies from Group A will face a team from Group B, with the likelihood of that being one of Germany, Spain or Denmark.
If England or Northern Ireland were to finish as runners-up, they would face the winners of Group B, which could mean Germany, the winner of eight of the past 10 Euros.
Should England or Northern Ireland win the group, the potential reward is only slightly less painful, with a Spain side packed with Barcelona Champions League winners or a Pernille Harder-inspired Denmark in prospect.
How do the other groups look?
With that in mind, it is no surprise that Group B is being considered the group of peril.
For neutrals, the prospect of an encounter between eight-time champions Germany and a fluid Spanish side, who have the advantage of a club-like feel with 10 Barca players in a recent squad, is an attractive one.
Group C also sees two heavyweights come together, with Sweden – the first ever Women’s Euros winners in 1984 – and defending champions the Netherlands paired together.
And while Group D might look to be there for the taking for France – world-ranked fifth – there remain questions over what they can achieve.
A group with Italy, Switzerland and Iceland should be straightforward on paper, but the French have a reputation for flopping on the big stage, having never gone past the quarter-finals of a major tournament.