Lionesses face ‘group of death’ and calendar chaos as road to Euro 2025 begins

The last time England qualified for a major tournament, the road to the Women’s World Cup final in Sydney began with a series of wins that are unlikely to be repeated in their history. More cricket scores than football results, victories of 8-0, 10-0, 4-0, 10-0, 20-0 and 10-0 again represented the formality of qualifying.

It is safe to say the path to Switzerland and Euro 2025 will be significantly tougher and far more unpredictable. As the Lionesses start the defence of their European crown, Sarina Wiegman’s side must first come through a tournament in itself as qualifying begins. A “group of death” is usually reserved for the major finals, not the preliminaries, but from the likes of North Macedonia, Luxembourg and Latvia, England must now face France, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland to even qualify for the Euros. Spare a thought for Ireland, who have drawn three of the world’s top five and will play three of the four semi-finalists from the record-breaking success of Euro 2022.

That, after all, is what the Lionesses are out to emulate. There is sense, though, to Uefa adopting the Nations League model for its European Championship qualifiers. The one-sided, and in the case of the 20-0 against Latvia, record-breaking victories England saw on their way to qualifying for the World Cup aren’t good for anyone. But as England experienced in their Nations League campaign last December, which also worked as qualifiers for the Olympics, the margins are far narrower as the calibre of opposition improves.

Only two teams from England’s group will qualify automatically, though the Lionesses would be assured of a seeded play-off spot even if they finish in the bottom two positions of their group. But, amid the jeopardy, the Lionesses have six good fixtures to look forward to, starting with a rematch against Sweden at Wembley, the Swedes out for revenge following the 4-0 thrashing at the hands of a rampant England side and the heel of Alessia Russo’s boot in the semi-finals of the Euros. Ireland will relish the occasion of hosting the Lionesses in Dublin on Tuesday 9 April, while France are the only top-ranked European nation England have yet to play under Wiegman.

The Dutch manager, who is targeting a hat-trick of Euros titles, believes the Lionesses were able to “reset” during February’s international window and warm-weather training camp in Spain. After winning the Euros and reaching the World Cup final in successive summers, England’s schedule caught up with them as they made a slow start to their inaugural Nations League campaign and narrowly lost out to the Netherlands. Wiegman says there is “energy” in the England squad again, with captain Leah Williamson set to return to the heart of defence and the emergence of Jess Park and Grace Clinton offering fresh options in midfield.

Grace Clinton, middle, can make a case to start in England’s midfield (Getty)
Grace Clinton, middle, can make a case to start in England’s midfield (Getty)

Yet England will be battling against the calendar as much as they will the difficult opposition, although that is also the same for everyone. The final two fixtures of England’s qualification campaign, against Ireland at Carrow Road and away to Sweden, are scheduled to be played in mid-July, which means Wiegman’s squad won’t have the summer break that many assumed they would after failing to qualify for the Olympics. Talks are already underway between the FA and the teams in the Women’s Super League, potentially reigniting the club-vs-country row that lingered in the build-up to the World Cup last year.

Once again, the clubs are concerned the players are not getting enough rest between the end of one season and the start of the next. While the first window in April is standard enough, the double-header with France at the end of May and start of June will take place a week after the Champions League final, which is set to feature either Chelsea’s Lauren James, Niamh Charles and Hannah Hampton, or Barcelona’s Keira Walsh and Lucy Bronze.

Arsenal, though, were seemingly not concerned by the fixture congestion enough to not schedule a post-season friendly in Australia on May 24 – a week after the end of the WSL season – potentially bringing all of Beth Mead, Williamson, Russo and Lotte Wubben-Moy on their trip across the world to Melbourne. Wiegman was understandably “surprised” and no doubt infuriated by that decision, with the France double-header in the middle of the campaign particularly key.

Wiegman and England must play through fixture congestion if they are to qualify automatically (Getty)
Wiegman and England must play through fixture congestion if they are to qualify automatically (Getty)

England, after all, don’t have room for slip-ups if they want to avoid being dragged into the two-legged play-offs ahead of the Euros. That much was shown by England’s sloppy Nations League campaign, where the Lionesses lost away to the Netherlands and Belgium early on, playing catch-up from there. Returning to Wembley, however, and the memories of their historic Euro 2022 success against Germany is as good a place to start as any.

Reaching the Basel final next summer will be England’s target. On the pitch, there was only one change between squads from February’s camp and April’s, with Millie Turner replacing Maya Le Tissier and Williamson’s return for the first time in 12 months leaving Millie Bright as Wiegman’s only major absence. The squad is as settled as it has been at any time since the Euros aftermath and Wiegman will now look to build upon the continuity fostered in February.

Within that, can either Park or Clinton establish themselves as options to start the Euros? England have perhaps missed a dynamic presence in midfield alongside Georgia Stanway and Walsh, but Park and Clinton, in particular, are able to combine an aggressive press with quality on the ball. Clinton scored on her England debut in February, while Park is playing a big role in Manchester City’s title challenge with three goals in her last two WSL games. Wiegman will want an immediate impact, as there is no time for experimenting. After all, if the path through qualifying used to be smooth sailing, England face a very different journey to the Euros now.

England v Sweden will be on ITV at 7:30pm on Friday 5 April