Northern Ireland v England preview: Lionesses won’t take foot off gas in dead rubber

The Northern Irish defence can expect a torrid time at St Mary’s tonight, kick-off 8pm, despite the absence of manager Wiegman and the fact the fates of these Group A rivals have already been sealed, writes Ruby Malone.

England will be riding a euphoric wave into their final Group A game against Northern Ireland tonight, following their record-breaking 8-0 victory over Norway earlier this week. Although the build-up to this dead rubber has been overshadowed by the news that Lionesses manager Sarina Wiegman will miss the match after testing positive for Covid-19.

Her long-time assistant Arjan Veurink takes charge of the side for this evening’s clash but the 52-year-old will remain in remote contact from the team’s base camp, the FA said in a statement. Wiegman won’t accept any let up as they look to extend their impressive 16-game unbeaten run under her leadership and boost their Euro ambitions. With England not playing again until next Wednesday, the disruption comes at one of the more manageable points of the tournament and is unlikely to unduly affect their quarter-final preparations.

In stark contrast to the Lionesses’ stellar form, the Norway result condemned their home nations opponent to an early exit from the tournament. Northern Ireland lost both their opener with the Norwegians and then to Austria to remain cemented to the bottom of Group A, with zero points and a goal difference of minus five. Manager Kenny Shiels conceded that it would be unrealistic to expect too much from his team in a major tournament so early in their development.


He said: “If you look at where we were when we came in, we reached this level too soon. There’s no way we can transform a team in two years how we have done and take it to that level immediately. We have some developmental stuff we need to do, with the 19 and 20-year-olds to get them to the senior team. Have we enough to challenge the top teams? Not yet. We have to keep improving the Under-19s and Under-17s, to improve them so they reach a level that they’re ready to play.”

England were always going to be favourites coming into this game, as they sit 39 places higher in the world rankings than Northern Ireland. The sides have met three times over the past 18 months, with the Lionesses winning all three, scoring 15, and conceding none. They will therefore be looking to this fixture to continue their unbeaten record and end the group stages on a high.

The two nations are in the same World Cup qualifying group which means they are familiar with each other’s style of play, and have met twice since Wiegman took charge last September. England won both games 4-0 and 5-0 respectively, but these results appear harsh considering how well Northern Ireland defended in the first half of both games. The Green and White army went with a back five set-up on both occasions and only let in one goal in the first half across both games, despite the Lionesses having on average over 75 per cent of the possession.

Shiels will be hoping his team can show the same stubborn mindset and determination to keep the scoreline respectable in their final game of the tournament. Although chances are slim that Northern Ireland can salvage even a point, they will be hoping they can bow out with dignity against a European heavyweight. For Wiegman, she will be looking to finish off the groups with maximum points and keep the momentum going into the quarter-finals. Although the manager said she would not ring the changes and prefers to keep the “rhythm”, the depth of England’s squad means that they can alter the line-up without affecting their quality too much. Therefore, we still expect to see some squad rotation and crucial players such as Beth Mead and Ellen White rested for this one.

Key battle: Lauren Hemp v Julie Nelson

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The Northern Irish backline have shown that they can weather the storm in their two recent games against the Lionesses – just not for the full 90 minutes. Their defence was stoic and resolute for the first half of both games, with standout performances from their defensive linchpin Julie Nelson. The vastly experienced 37-year-old provides leadership and stability at the back, and even made history by becoming Northern Ireland’s first goalscorer at a European tournament in their 4-1 defeat to Norway.

Tonight, she will come up against an exuberant and ready-to-dazzle Lauren Hemp. The England wide forward was brilliant in their 5-0 win over Northern Ireland in April, wearing the backline down with her tenacious runs and direct approach. She ended the game with a well-deserved brace, so Nelson will be aware of the threat she poses. If Hemp’s usual work ethic, trademark weaving and flashy footwork is on display, the Northern Irish defence will be in for a tough night.

Team news

England defender Demi Stokes is out with a minor knee injury, so won’t be available for selection.
Lotte Wubben-Moy returned to training on Wednesday after her Covid recovery so could feature, but it’s likely Wiegman will go for consistency in the backline and keep the solid duo of Millie Bright and Leah Williamson in.

Northern Ireland will again be without their star striker Simone Magill after she suffered an ACL injury in their opening game against Norway. Shiels may look to bring squad players in, to give them a chance to experience tournament football.

Last five results (all competitions)
England: WWWWW Northern Ireland: LLLLL

England wins: 8 Northern Ireland wins: 0 Draws: 0

Recent meetings
12/04/2022: England 5 Northern Ireland 0 (2023 World Cup qualifiers)
23/10/2021: England 4 Northern Ireland 0 (2023 World Cup qualifiers)

Predicted line-up (4-3-3)

Game changer: England’s squad depth and experience

Whether it’s Spain or Denmark who progress from Group B, the quarter-final on Wednesday will be a tough fixture for England so Wiegman will want her strongest starting line-up ready to go. In most cases this would give Northern Ireland a glimmer of hope and the possibility of coming up against a weakened side. However, the Lionesses’ squad depth and experience means rotation doesn’t necessarily mean a major loss of talent. Even young squad players such as Alessia Russo and Ella Toone have experience at the highest level – both play for Manchester United in the WSL. Considering few of the Northern Irish starting line-up have played at that level or even professionally, it’s hard to see them getting any points from the game regardless of who starts for the Lionesses.

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Score predication: England 5 Northern Ireland 0

Wiegman has shown that she’s the type of manager who, after a 20-0 win, would still question why her team didn’t score more. It’s clear that she imparts her incredibly high standards onto her players and so the Lionesses will be looking to finish the group with a perfect record – three wins and zero goals conceded. Northern Ireland may manage to hold out longer than some expect, but their opponent’s form, talent, and confidence will prove too much for them over the 90 minutes. Considering England’s demolition of Norway, this scoreline would be seen as respectable for this developing Northern Irish team who did an incredible job just to make it to Euro 2022.

You can follow Ruby on Twitter @RubyGMalone

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