Rich Laverty looks at the tricky task ahead for Hege Riise as the head coach prepares to select her Team GB squad from the home nations for Tokyo 2020.
Despite no official confirmation and no certainty of anything in the world anymore, until told otherwise, the anticipation of the approaching Tokyo Olympics grows day by day, especially for those of us following the women’s game.
Any squad announcement for a major tournament is one of the most anticipated events of the football calendar, I remember a room crammed full with people at Canada House in 2015 to hear who Mark Sampson had selected for the World Cup, and that was before post-bronze medal mania!
This one is a little different, for several reasons. Firstly, we’ve now been discussing who may or may not make Hege Riise’s Team GB squad for nearly 18 months, with such a long wait that it was initially Phil Neville’s Team GB squad before the pandemic took hold and the Olympics were postponed in unprecedented fashion.
Secondly, selecting an Olympics squad comes with tougher constraints for any nation than that of a World Cup or European Championships because nations can only select 18 players rather than 23. While that will no doubt provide headaches for head coaches with an embarrassment of riches at their disposal, such as Vlatko Andonovski, Peter Gerhardsson, Sarina Wiegman etc, it is tougher still for Riise.
In the summer, four nations will essentially become one, and while picking 18 players just from the 25 (plus Steph Houghton) selected for England’s upcoming friendlies against France and Canada would be tough enough, the addition of top players from the other home nations has made trying to piece together who will be on the plane to Tokyo an almost impossible task.
Assuming anyone bar the injured captain not selected for England’s last two friendlies before Tokyo now has next to no chance of making it, even dropping eight from the current pool feels like a task no manager should have to go through.
If all 25/26 are indeed on the now cut down 35-player shortlist, it leaves around nine or 10 we can assume are from Scotland and Wales. It’s safe to assume the likes of Caroline Weir, Kim Little, Erin Cuthbert, Jess Fishlock, Hayley Ladd and Sophie Ingle will be in the reckoning, while the others are anyone’s guess, though you could make educated guesses at players such as Angharad James, Natasha Harding, Lisa Evans, Rachel Corsie etc.
Unfortunately for Scotland, they have no eye-catching games for their players to take part in this month, while Wales players will have extra motivation to shine not just for Riise but for new head coach Gemma Grainger in their games against Denmark and Canada.
The one common denominator of the six players almost certain to be on the list from Scotland and Wales is they are all predominantly midfielders, and along with Jordan Nobbs, Keira Walsh, Jill Scott etc, just that position alone is a thankless task for Riise to select from.
While club form will no doubt have an impact, England now essentially have two games to showcase their ability and potential for their new and temporary head coach, but permanent enough to decide who and who doesn’t get the opportunity of a lifetime this summer.
Riise would no doubt have liked to be facing a full-strength France side to really test her players, but Les Bleus are missing a whole host of stars due to Lyon’s COVID-19 outbreak, although ironically their only English player has been able to join up for the game and could line up against France in the form of Nikita Parris.
Canada will also provide a stern test having beaten the Lionesses leading up to the 2019 World Cup, with former assistant head coach Bev Priestman still finding her feet after replacing Kenneth Heiner-Moller.
With a tight international schedule now meaning the European Championships and World Cup both fall within the next two summers, no doubt the majority of current England players, young or old, will get an opportunity at another major tournament, but for many the next two games could lead to a once in a lifetime opportunity, never has a set of friendly games been so important.
Follow Rich on Twitter at @RichJLaverty