The next step: Wiegman urges England to push on for World Cup

Sarina Wiegman believes England cannot afford to sit still after their European Championship triumph because of how quickly all women’s national teams are developing.

The Lionesses play Austria at the Wiener Neustadt Stadium, south of Vienna, on Saturday night in their penultimate World Cup qualifying tie with a point enough to ensure their passage to next year’s tournament.

“When you’re satisfied with what you’re doing right now, you’ve lost – because the game develops so much and every country is so eager to improve,” said Wiegman, in the makeshift press room in a tent outside the 4,290-capacity stadium.

“The players have already said this is just the start,” she added. “This is just the beginning, a very good beginning by the way, but yes, I feel like even on 31 July we were partying but the players are already looking forward.

“We want to qualify for the World Cup, of course, that’s what we are supposed to do at the stage we’re at and then we want to be successful.”

Beating Austria is not easy. The Euro 2017 semi-finalists reached the quarter-finals in July, only to be knocked out by Germany in a gripping and gritty encounter.

“They have grown so much over the years,” Wiegman said. “In 2017 they were really good in defence but in possession they’ve grown a lot too, I think. They’ve done a great job against us but also in their Germany game they were very good. They’re a tough team, they’re very well organised, but they also want to go forward, real direct. So, we really have to be at a really high level to be successful.”

The Lionesses have beaten Austria twice in the past year, in the reverse fixture in November 2021 at the Stadium of Light and at Old Trafford in the opening game of the Euros. Both times England won 1-0.

Austria’s manager, Irene Fuhrmann, said she had every player fit. “For us it’s a special game: we play against a fantastic team that deserve to be European champions.

“We want to make it as hard as possible for England. Our recent performances gave us some self-confidence. We can only do it together as a team and if we do that, we’ve shown we can catch up with those big nations, but England is of course the favourite.

“Football shows that everything is possible, but we need a magical night to take something from England and we’re realistic about that, we know what’s going on and who is the favourite.”

For Wiegman there are decisions to make. The final two qualifiers, against Austria and at home to Luxembourg on Tuesday, will ensure England head to the World Cup, but there are enforced changes to the XI that began every game of the Euros. The record goalscorer, Ellen White, has retired and Fran Kirby has been left out of the squad with an unspecified injury.

“After every game you think: what did we do, what do we need? More attack? More defence? It’s about the balance between those two things,” said Wiegman. “That’s what we do now, taking into account that the squad has changed a little bit so we have to change a little bit. But we’re preparing, getting the balances right and then we make choices.”

In line to lead the attack in place of White is Alessia Russo, who came off the bench for the striker in England’s six Euros games to great effect. “I feel as if I haven’t maybe made my name as a starting striker yet so I’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Russo said.

Also in contention for the No 9 spot are Beth England, who has struggled with a lack of playing time at Chelsea; Nikita Parris, who has joined Manchester United in the hope of more minutes than she was able to accrue at Arsenal; and Ebony Salmon, who was not at the Euros but has scored eight goals in her first nine games for Houston Dash in the NWSL.

“Ellen’s left a gap that was full for a few years, so I think that it’s obvious to everyone that the position is up for grabs,” said Salmon.

Wiegman added: “With Ebony, of course she was in camp last year in September, got some feedback. Now she has changed club, she’s doing really well and we want to see her in our environment.

“Of course, the position of the No 9 is very competitive, all of the positions in the team are very competitive. I have made up my mind [about who will start] but I’m not going to share that yet because we’ve still got one training session, but I’m happy with the way we are.”