by Ethan Harris
JAYNE Ludlow is relishing the challenge set for her players as Wales Women prepare for England in the World Cup qualifying match-up at Saint Mary’s stadium next month.
Ludlow’s side will be hoping to extend their lead to four points at the top of Group A, but face stern competition in what is arguably their toughest opponent within the group stages to date.
“The reality is we’re playing against the second-best team in the world and we’re the 34th best team apparently, so there’s a reality check,” Ludlow said.
“We are coming up against the level of team that we haven’t played recently, and one that we don’t get an opportunity to play very often, so for us, it’s a massive opportunity for our players to step out on the pitch and compete first and foremost.”
Coming off a positive Cyprus Cup performance, the Wales Women’s manager spoke highly of her side’s ability to cope with numerous changes to the squad in the latter stages of the tournament.
“There were lots of positives from the four-game tournament out there for us, probably the main highlight for me was the last game, drawing against a European semi-finalist with five changes in our senior team which is something we’ve never been able to do in the past.
“Strength in depth is an area that we’re focusing on for the long term and coming away from that tournament that was a real positive, because the younger players that stepped out on the pitch did their jobs, worked extremely hard and are now fully fledged senior international players.”
With former Manchester United and Everton player Phil Neville taking charge as Lioness boss, Ludlow was cautious of what the manager would bring to the table for the upcoming clash.
“I don’t know very much about him. I know his history, he was a very good player. In the past with regards to structure, now they are changing things, he is changing things.”
“He is giving different players an opportunity and whichever squad or team that England put out on the pitch against us, it’s going to be a strong team so you know he’s in a great position having a group of 23 players to pick from who are top level players.
“We are two years into a development programme that they’ve been running for twenty years and there have been some extremely good managers who have been involved in that development programme over time and some are still there now.
“The reality is they do well in all groups, so they have a massive strength in depth and we’re playing catch-up. I think whoever is leading a team that is ranked second in the world, it’s got to be a nice environment to be a part of.”
Unbeaten in the qualifying stages so far, Ludlow would no doubt wish to finish the campaign on a high note, with victory against England Women setting her squad on their way to do just that.
Despite their brilliant performances in the group stage so far, the manager was mindful of how much her side still had to develop before they can think of themselves as one of the top nations in the world.
“We have a fairly settled squad with a lot of younger players involved in it and have done since the beginning of the campaign. We have a settled staff group as well which makes a huge impact in regard to the development of the players when they’re with us.
“We are very pleased with where we’re at right now, but there’s realism with regards to how we’re very much still a developing entity.
“For us where we sit as a smaller nation, we’re ranked as the third team in the group, we’re exceeding expectations in regard to that right now, but for us its stepping stones to hopefully push for a playoff position at the end of this campaign and that’s a positive for us.
“It’s something we’ve never managed to do in the past, we’ve never got to a playoff so for us to expect to get through and get through finals tournaments right now, it’s what we want but it’s probably going to be staged over the next few years.
“To be fair, with regards to the women’s game and the professionalism that’s now coming into the game, there are certain things that will be developing over the next few years that, I think, can only be positive for all the players involved and the staff.”
Only time will tell if Wales Women can maintain their lead at the top of group A, but Ludlow is excited for the challenge nonetheless, especially with a World Cup place on the cards.
“Any top team in the world, when you get an opportunity to play those, it’s going to be a great opportunity for our girls to step out on the pitch and compete against top level players, which we are looking forward to.”