England have firmly established themselves among the elite of women’s international football after reaching the World Cup semi-finals four years ago and then winning the 2022 UEFA European Women’s Football Championship. The biggest prize still eludes them, however, and to correct that they’ll need to come through a group that also contains Denmark, Haiti and China.
With kick-off just around the corner, read up on the key storylines and players to watch with our Group D preview.
Will the Lionesses Roar Again?
For the first time ever, England come into a major tournament with a target on their backs.
The European champions have now broken down that winning barrier and enter the World Cup as one of the favourites, and with it comes the expectation rivals will approach Sarina Wiegman’s side differently than before.
For Wiegman, she could reach an incredible fourth major tournament final in a row if all goes well, but there will surely be bumps in the road for an England side that doesn’t look as familiar to last summer as their coach would have hoped.
Their build-up hasn’t been smooth to say the least. For the first time in the Wiegman era, last summer’s free-scoring Lionesses have failed to score for two consecutive games, following on from the Women’s Finalissima against Brazil where they won on penalties after their opponents had forced a 1-1 draw in stoppage time.
A 2-0 defeat to Australia and a frustrating 0-0 draw against Portugal won’t raise too many alarms given they were merely warm-up matches, but England will need to avoid becoming too predictable in their attacking build-up should they want to follow up their Euros success with more on the global stage.
Despite the talk of the Lionesses misfiring in the last couple of games, Wiegman has an embarrassment of riches available to her in attack.
While last summer it was Ellen White leading the line with Alessia Russo playing the ‘super sub’ role, this year Wiegman has three leading contenders for the number nine role, with three players who scored almost 50 league goals between them last season.
Aston Villa’s golden boot-winning Rachel Daly has been given the number nine shirt and started against Portugal, giving off the biggest hint yet that last summer’s left-back will be Wiegman’s preferred starting striker come the opener against Haiti in Brisbane.
Russo, who recently moved from Manchester United to Arsenal, managed 10 league goals last year, fewer than half of Daly, and also fewer than Bethany England who scored 12 goals in the second half of the season as she almost single-handedly dragged Tottenham Hotspur away from the relegation zone.
Daly’s 22 goals, a recording-equalling tally in Women’s Super League (WSL) history, came from just 84 shots. The only player to come close to her tally, Manchester City’s Khadija Shaw, scored 20 goals from 124 shots, with Daly’s conversion rate an impressive 23.5%. England’s was even better, with 14 goals from 40 shots, a conversion rate of 33.3%, while Russo’s rate was just 13.9% with 10 goals from 72 attempts.
Daly ranked fourth in the whole of Europe for goals last season, behind only Alba Redondo (27), Racheal Kundananji (25) and Tabitha Chawinga (23), ahead of players such as Kadidiatou Diani (17), Alex Popp (16) and Asisat Oshoala (21).
It’s hard to find a reason Daly shouldn’t be the starting striker for Wiegman and England this summer.
Replacing Key Losses
Like many of the top nations, England come into this tournament with some gaps to fill. Captain and centre-back Leah Williamson is missing with an ACL injury, as is last summer’s star and top scorer Beth Mead, while Fran Kirby also remains out with a long-standing issue.
Kirby is likely to be replaced by Ella Toone, her deputy last summer, while out wide Wiegman has plenty of options in Chloe Kelly, Lauren Hemp, Lauren James and Katie Robinson to make up for the loss of Mead.
The absence of Williamson though is more complicated, with England missing experienced depth at the heart of defence. An extra issue is Millie Bright’s lack of football in the build-up to the tournament, but who partners her remains to be seen.
Against Portugal, Wiegman opted for Jess Carter and Esme Morgan in what felt like a face-off for the spot, with Alex Greenwood remaining at left-back where she has regularly featured for England since the Euros.
Greenwood was the unlucky one last summer when it came to team selection, but she is likely to play a key role this summer whatever her position. Carter and Greenwood would allow flexibility for Wiegman, with both able to play centre-back and left-back, and depending on the flow of the game could seamlessly switch positions mid-match if needed.
As a centre-back at Manchester City, Greenwood has been nothing short of sublime, and could breathe new life into the Lionesses this summer. In the WSL last season, Greenwood was top of the table for passes per 90 (84.1), as well as successful passes per 90 (72.3), well clear of second-place Lotte Wubben-Moy (78.9 and 68.0).
All six of the top defenders were potential options for Wiegman, with Bright, Williamson and the unselected Maya Le Tissier and Steph Houghton following closely. Greenwood also ranked highly for total progressive carries (10.2 per 90), behind only Williamson, Ona Batlle and Katrine Veje, but she played significantly more minutes than Veje or Williamson.
Wherever she plays, Greenwood will be a key player for the Lionesses.
Strength Between the Sticks
If England are potentially going to be look a little different and therefore become a little less solid at the back, they may have to rely on the current best goalkeeper in the world, Manchester United’s Mary Earps.
Earps has gone to new heights in recent years and her key performances last summer played a huge role in the Lionesses’ success.
She is coming into the World Cup off another impressive year as number one for club and country and broke the record for clean sheets in a single league season with 14 across her 22 WSL games. Her 12 goals conceded matched her expected goals conceded tally, with a save percentage of 79.3%, better than any other goalkeeper in the league who was a regular number one.
Her clean sheet percentage of 64% was well clear of her fellow England goalkeepers, with Ellie Roebuck just 29% and Hannah Hampton 33%, emphasising just how good and how important Earps has become between the sticks at any level.
A Return to the Top?
China are a tough team to judge heading into the 2023 tournament.
The hosts of the first Women’s World Cup in 1991 were runners-up in 1999 – losing to the USA on penalties in the final – but they have never come close to getting as far again.
In the 24 years that have passed since their near miss in 1999, China haven’t been past the quarter-finals, and failed to even qualify in 2011, but there is new hope under the guidance of head coach and former player Shui Qingxia.
A few years ago, the Chinese Women’s Super League made a big push to sign some top players, including Zambia’s Barbra Banda and Malawi striker Tabitha Chawinga (now at Inter Milan), but COVID-19 stunted the progress of the domestic league.
Only a smattering of their key players play abroad, such as Wang Shuang, probably their best player and currently at Racing Louisville in the NWSL, who also had a previous spell with Paris Saint-Germain.
China are the second-highest ranked team in the group, but whether they have enough to get through is up in the air.
A Balancing Act
If China are at least to make it out of the group, they will need to be solid at both ends. A solid, if at times unspectacular side, China are a possession team and the influence in attack of the aforementioned Wang Shuang will be pivotal to their hopes.
During her spell at PSG a few years ago, she scored seven league goals and has two this season in the NWSL. Combined with the experienced Wang Shanshan up front, who is one of China’s most prolific scorers, their partnership could give China their best chance of progressing, while former Tottenham Hotspur forward Tang Jiali is also an option.
China won the AFC Asia Cup last year for the first time in 16 years and will bring that winning mentality into the tournament, where the trio of Shuang, Shanshan and Jiali between them managed 19 goals.
They beat Japan in the semi-final and South Korea in the final, two of their major Asian rivals, and China will be eager to outperform them again at the WWC.
At the other end, they have conceded just once in their last five games, which will prove important against the attacking threats of England, Denmark and Haiti. Their final warm-up game against Colombia may give a better idea of the level they’re at.
Supporters on UK shores may be familiar with Celtic’s Shen Mengyu, who could be an influential presence in the middle of the park for China.
In the SWPL last season, Mengyu ranked within the top 10 for passes in the opposition half (786), while she also ranked third for open-play chances created (53) in the entire league – five of those assisting goals. She has the ability to tee up China’s exciting-looking attack if there is space to operate.
Denmark have enough quality that England and China would probably have been disappointed to see them drawn in Group D as the top-ranked Pot 3 side.
It’s a final swansong for long-standing manager Lars Søndergaard who will stand down as head coach after six years in charge after the World Cup, taking on the baton after Nils Nielsen led the side to the Euro 2017 final.
Perhaps that run gave Denmark an elevated reputation around the world – one they haven’t been able to match since – but there is no reason they cannot at least give China a run for their money and progress from the group given the quality they hold, with a nice blend of youth and experience in the squad.
Harder Holds the Key
Denmark fans will have been delighted to see captain and star player Pernille Harder return from long-term injury at the end of last season.
As an extra plus point, it looked like she’d never been away, especially in the FA Cup final when she came off the bench to change the momentum of the game in Chelsea’s favour and set up the eventual winner for Australia forward Sam Kerr against Manchester United at Wembley.
Harder has 70 goals for the national team where she’s played a pivotal role since her first cap. Last season, Chelsea won 10 out of 10 games Harder featured in, but just nine of the 12 she didn’t, with two losses and a draw.
Harder created on average 1.8 chances every game across just 607 minutes of WSL action, while she recorded an expected assists value of 0.24 per game. For comparison, Guro Reiten had 0.38, from 800 more minutes played.
A Solid Blend
Domestic players. International players. Exciting youth. Experienced heads. The Denmark squad has a bit of everything.
WSL fans will be familiar with Bayern Munich-bound Harder, but also Everton’s departing defender Rikke Sevecke, her now former club teammates Katrine Veje, Karen Holmgaard and Nicoline Sørensen, as well as Arsenal’s new superstar Kathrine Kühl.
There are players at an array of top clubs around the world, too. Sofie Svaa plays for Real Madrid, Signe Bruun has just joined her after spells at Lyon and PSG, while Amalie Vangsgaard joined PSG in January. There is also North Carolina Courage duo Mille Gejl and Rikke Madsen.
One thing is for sure, this Denmark squad is not short on quality and if Søndegaard can get a tune out of them one last time, they are more than capable of springing a surprise.
Diamonds in the Rough
You can’t say enough about Haiti’s journey to get to their first Women’s World Cup.
It’s one of the poorest nations in the world, the capital city of Port-au-Prince has been overrun by gangs and the nation was decimated just over a decade ago by one of the worst earthquakes the world has seen.
Even on the football side, they have been embroiled for too long in a sexual abuse scandal that saw several high-ranking officials banned by FIFA, including then-president Yves Jean-Bart, yet against it all they have developed an incredible array of talent that guided them past Chile in a playoff and into a first World Cup.
For Nicolas Delépine, who duals his role as head coach with the same role at French second-division side Grenoble, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime to go up against some of the world’s best, but there’s no reason this fearless group can’t shock some of their bigger names given the attacking talent they hold.
The French Evolution
Fifteen of the players named in Haiti’s initial extended squad for the World Cup currently play their football in France, with the others largely college students in the USA apart from Zenit striker Shwendesky Joseph.
Given the shared language and cultures, getting key players into the French league was a purposefully created system by the federation some time ago and it has paid off for both the team and the individuals.
Some are rising to the top, with defender Kethna Louis joining Montpellier this summer, while others are shining further up the field. Experienced forward Roselord Borgella is also starring for a top-half side in Dijon, as are Batcheba Louis and Nérilia Mondésir for Fleury 91 and Montpellier respectively. Mondésir was the seventh-highest scorer in the French top division last season with nine goals, with Louis not far behind with seven of her own. Mondésir also ranked in the top five for chances created across the season, with 29, only three off second-place midfielder Léa Le Garrec of France.
There is no doubt that one player stands out in this Haiti squad. Melchie Dumornay recently joined Lyon after pretty much every major club in world football chased her services. Such have been her performances both domestically for Stade de Reims and with the national team, where she scored both goals against Chile to secure World Cup qualification, it was apt it was Dumornay who performed in the biggest moment.
Still just 19, there is no doubt she is heading for the very top, and Lyon will only elevate her stardom even further. Her 11 goals saw her placed within the top five scorers in the French top flight last season, while her creative influence was even clearer, despite not playing for a Champions League chasing team.
Dumornay’s six assists was only three short of Selma Bacha (nine) at the top of the tree, while no player had more ball carries that ended in a shot on goal than Dumornay’s 25 across the season. She also ranked highly for chances created, with 31, only behind Le Garrec and Gaëtane Thiney.