Leah Williamson: I get emotional watching England so I am itching to return

Leah Williamson: I get emotional watching England so I am itching to return
Leah Williamson is back fit and ready to start for England - Getty Images/Naomi Baker

Leah Williamson says her love for England will make playing for the Lionesses for the first time in 12 months even more emotional on Tuesday, when she starts in their Women’s Euro 2025 qualifier against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin.

England’s captain has not played for her country since April 11 last year, having suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury later that month which saw her miss last summer’s World Cup. She was recalled for February’s friendlies but ultimately missed that camp because of a hamstring problem.

The Arsenal centre-back was an unused substitute for England’s 1-1 draw with Sweden at Wembley on Friday and she said: “It was emotional for me. I’m an emotional person.

“You’ve all seen me cry on many occasions. If there’s a team that you want to be in, in the world, I think the Lionesses will be up there and I love playing for England.”

Williamson skippered the team to glory at Euro 2022 and now returns as they aim to kick-start the defence of their trophy, but she says she has been living and breathing every kick as a fan in the meantime.

She said: “Who you’ve always seen on the pitch is exactly what I was off the pitch. I don’t think I was a calming presence for anyone during the World Cup, especially! I’ve got people that play for the team that are very important to me.

“It has been a difficult journey. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t the thing that I’d had my focus on. This is where I wanted to get back to. I wanted to be good enough to get back into this squad. I had some of the best memories of my life as part of this team.

“I’ve loved getting to know the girls I haven’t played with before. The environment is still a nice one to be in, which is great. Coming back in, the competitiveness and the want to be better within the squad is still the same.”

Head coach Sarina Wiegman confirmed that Williamson would start Tuesday’s game and added: “Leah is a fantastic player. What Leah brings is, of course, vision and in possession she is very bright. She finds the right pass. She is able to defend the space behind her together with everyone else. That’s what I hope Leah will bring to the team tomorrow.”

Where England must improve to get qualifying campaign on track

The Lionesses really need a victory on Tuesday to boost their hopes of qualifying for next summer’s tournament in Switzerland, having drawn their opening fixture of what is an unusually tough-looking qualification group. Three of the world’s top six sides, in England, France and Sweden, know that only two teams from this four-team group will qualify automatically and those in third and fourth will have to settle for this autumn’s play-offs.

Yet at Wembley, Sweden looked the better side and probably should have won the game, spurning a glorious chance to win through Arsenal’s Stina Blackstenius. After the game, Sweden manager Peter Gerhardsson said his side had deliberately tried to stop Keira Walsh from dictating the game.

Wiegman said: “Of course you don’t want to be dependent on one player. She’s been marked very well in different games, so we expect that too, and we tried to find solutions against Sweden. Sometimes that worked, sometimes we struggled a little bit with that, and tomorrow again when that happens, we’ll find a way.

“But we have 10 other players on the pitch and what you want to do is play it forward to get behind the defence and create chances to score goals. Yes, Keira is an important player to get on the ball and pass, but there are more players who can pass the ball, so we’ll see tomorrow how we can solve that.

“It was a very tough game on Friday, I think Sweden tactically challenged us, we were struggling a little bit in and out of possession.”

Leah Williamson: I get emotional watching England so I am itching to return
England manager Sarina Wiegman (right) wants an improved display from her players - Reuters/Paul Childs

A key task for the European champions will be to utilise any space left vacant by the Republic of Ireland elsewhere on the pitch, if they do decide to double up on Walsh or Chelsea’s Lauren James. Keeping a watchful eye on Arsenal’s Katie McCabe, something of a long-range goal specialist, will be another important challenge. Additionally, they know they will need to use an in-form Alessia Russo, after the Arsenal forward’s strong performance at Wembley, when they run out in front of an expected crowd of around 30,000 fans on Tuesday.

Asked about Russo’s importance to the team and her development, Wiegman replied: “We’ve worked a lot on her positioning in the build-up. We talk a lot about overseeing the picture, scanning really well, and then making the right decision. When is she the target? When is she running away? These things that you do with centre-forwards and specifically to her. I think she’s just in a good place.”

England have scored 22 times in their past five games but at the back, since the World Cup in particular, they have repeatedly looked vulnerable to counter-attacks, not least in October’s shock defeat away in Belgium. This problem reared its head again against Sweden at Wembley on multiple occasions, and the further forward their full-backs push up, the more exposed they appear when they lose the ball. Bringing that to an end before it becomes a common trend will be vital.

And while Wiegman seemed reluctant to label Tuesday’s match as a ‘must-win’, it surely is, ahead of back-to-back meetings with the side ranked third in the world, France, at the end of May and the beginning of June. To enter that double-header with anything other than four points would pile on the pressure.

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