Never mind England v Scotland at Wembley on Friday evening, that’s just a World Cup qualifier – when the women’s teams of the two home nations meet in the Netherlands next July it will be at the finals of the European Championships.
Scotland will make history as it will be their first ever appearance at a major tournament; so to kick off with an opening game against the auld enemy – who are set for their fifth successive Euro finals – seems perfectly fitting.
Likewise another derby clash in the same four-team group as England and Scotland, who will be joined in Group D by Iberian rivals Spain and Portugal – the latter like the Scots making their major tournament bow.
So it was excitement all around when the draw was made in Rotterdam for the finals, which for the first time will involve 16 nations with the top two from each of the four groups heading into quarter-final ties.
Scotland’s head coach Anna Signeul is Swedish, but after 11 years in charge of the national team (she will be by some distance the longest serving coach at the finals) she gets perfectly what the meeting with England will mean to the Scots.
“Playing against England obviously inspires the players,” said Signeul as she assessed the group following the draw at Rotterdam’s Luxor theatre. England are a very difficult team, but this game will bring out the very best in our players.
“They will show what big hearts they have and show the pride that these derbies are so much about. I didn’t know how big the rivalry was when I came to Scotland in 2005, but I sure do now!”
If Signeul ever doubted the passion around Scotland-England fixtures she found out at the Cyprus Cup in 2011, when goals by Kim Little and Jennifer Beattie gave the Scots a 2-0 win that was their first against the English for 34 years.
“Yes,” Signeul recalled, “I can remember the way the players celebrated after that match.” The coach wasn’t aware at the time of the history of the fixture, but the jubilant players did – their nation had suffered 17 straight defeats by England.
Some of those past defeats were inspired by Arsenal striker Marieanne Spacey, now assistant to England head Mark Sampson and like Signeul in Rotterdam for the draw and just as excited about the Euro finals match-up of the two teams.
“I can remember scoring a hat-trick against the Scots at Wycombe,” said Spacey, “and two goals against them at Wembley. But that’s the past and I think that Scotland are more difficult opponents these days.
“Anna has done fantastically well with them and to get to their first major tournament is a great achievement. My first emotion was excitement when I knew we’d get them in our first game, and I’m sure our players feel the same.
“They play with and against the Scots girls in the Super League, so there’ll be some friendly rivalry and banter leading up to the finals. But when we’re there it will be, ‘you’re in our way of getting to a gold medal,’ and it will be serious stuff.”
Serious indeed, and Spacey makes no secret of the fact that she, Sampson and the players are intent on winning the tournament after collecting the bronze medal at last year’s World Cup in Canada and silver at the 2009 Euro finals in Finland.
“The expectation on England has grown since World Cup,” said Spacey, “and we’re embracing that expectation because the girls really believe we can achieve something special at this tournament.”
Signeul also believes that her team can achieve something special. Gold is not in her thinking at this point, but she said: “We don’t want to go to the Netherlands just to be there, we want to get to the quarter-finals at least.”
In order to reach the quarter-finals the Scots, like Sampson’s England, must finish the group stage ahead of Spain and Portugal. And that won’t be easy reckons Signeul, who will be hoping for pay-back against the Spaniards.
She remembers with horror the Euro 2013 qualifying play-off against Spain, who won the two-leg tie with a goal in the dying seconds of the second leg (then went on to beat England at the group stage of the finals).
“It was the last kick of the game,” recalled Signeul. “I have never felt so physically sick. It was just like my heart broke – I couldn’t stand up. So it would be very nice to beat them at the Euro finals.
“But I have great respect for Spain. They have quality players and they are great in possession – just like their men’s team. And Portugal will be tough opponents too. I’ve seen them play a lot and they could be dangerous opponents.
“But we will be prepared for all three group games. We have already started our preparations and we will focus individually as well as collectively so we are fit enough, strong enough, tactically astute enough and ready enough.”
While the interest of England and Scotland supporters will be focused on Group D, the other three groups also have some intriguing games in prospect, including what could be an outstanding Group B opener between Germany and Sweden.
Eight times Euro winners Germany have traditionally got the better of Sweden at major tournaments, most recently this year’s Olympic final. But the Swedes have become a much tougher proposition of late and could spring an early surprise.
Group A, which includes host the Netherlands, looks set to be the most open while Group C should be won comfortably by France – who then, if past tournaments are anything to go by, are likely to bottle it in the knock-out stages.
Sunday 16 July:
Netherlands v Norway (Utrecht), Denmark v Belgium (Doetinchem)
Monday 17 July:
Germany v Sweden (Breda), Italy v Russia (Rotterdam)
Tuesday 18 July:
France v Iceland (Tilburg), Austria v Switzerland (Deventer)
Wednesday 19 July:
England v Scotland (Utrecht), Spain v Portugal (Doetinchem)
Thursday 20 July:
Netherlands v Denmark (Rotterdam), Norway v Belgium (Breda)
Friday 21 July:
Germany v Italy (Tilburg), Sweden v Russia (Deventer)
Saturday 22 July:
France v Austria (Utrecht), Iceland v Switzerland (Doetinchem)
Sunday 23 July:
England v Spain (Breda), Scotland v Portugal (Rotterdam)
Monday 24 July:
Belgium v Netherlands (Tilburg), Norway v Denmark (Deventer)
Tuesday 25 July:
Russia v Germany (Utrecht), Sweden v Italy (Doetinchem)
Wednesday 26 July:
Austria v France (Breda), Iceland v Austria (Rotterdam)
Thursday 27 July:
Portugal v England (Tilburg), Scotland v Spain (Deventer)
Saturday 29 July:
Winner A v Runner-up B (QF1, Doetinchem)
Winner B v Runner-up A (QF2, Rotterdam)
Sunday 30 July:
Winner C v Runner-up D (QF3, Tilburg)
Winner D v Runner-up C (QF4, Deventer)
Thursday 3 August:
QF1 v QF4 (Enschede), QF2 v QF3 (Breda)
Sunday 6 August (Enschede)