by Tony Leighton
After disappointingly collecting just one point at the SheBelieves Cup in the USA, England captain Steph Houghton is fittingly dipping into the Great American Songbook to ‘Accentuate the Positive’ as she looks ahead to Euro 2017.
Houghton and her colleagues flew home from Florida on Friday evening after the tough ten-day tournament, at which defeats by world champions the USA and European champions Germany were followed by a goalless draw with France.
England finished third in the four-nation event, level with bottom team France on points and goal difference but ahead of them as Les Bleues had failed to score in any of their three games while Mark Sampson’s team had hit one goal.
Those statistics are not what England wanted to come out of a tournament before which – despite their opponents being the top three ranked teams in the world – head coach Sampson had set the target of lifting the winner’s trophy.
Manchester City defender Houghton said: “Of course we wanted to win games, but we competed well with every team in three very tight matches and I feel we can be pleased with the way we progressed over the course of the tournament.
“In the past when we’ve played against the very top teams we’ve tended to be defensive and we were often on the back foot, but this time we took the game to them and we frightened every one of them for long periods.”
Houghton was one of several England players who were impressive throughout, the centre-back faring well against three of the world’s best strikers in America’s Alex Morgan, Anja Mittag of Germany and France’s Marie-Laure Delie.
“You always want to play against the very best and so you relish getting opportunities like this,” said 27-year-old Houghton.
“I enjoyed all three battles against strikers who can each give you a different set of problems.
“I thought as a defence we coped well with all of them, not just those three but Carli Lloyd against America and (Dzsenifer) Marozsan against Germany. And against France their defenders never really caused us problems at set-pieces.”
The three goals conceded by England were a Crystal Dunn ‘worldie’ in the 1-0 defeat by the USA and then an unlucky Claire Rafferty own goal followed by a dubiously awarded penalty in the 2-1 loss to Germany.
Houghton’s Manchester City team mate Toni Duggan, inset right, had put England ahead against the Germans, but apart from that goal Sampson’s team rarely looked truly capable of creating and taking clear scoring opportunities.
Goalscoring against the top opposition seems to be a problem area for England and Houghton admitted: “We know we have work to do on our attacking. But we can get the ball down and play and we have got players who can score goals.
“It’s a long process. We knew we wouldn’t get everything right in these three games, but we are becoming a team that nobody wants to play against and we can take that forward into qualifying for the Euros and beyond that.”
England, who are ranked fifth in the world, are certainly the most feared team in their Euro 17 qualifying group and they should have no problems in reaching the finals, which are set to be played in the Netherlands.
Next up in qualifying is an April match at Rotherham United’s New York Stadium against Belgium, who at 28th in the Fifa rankings are the nearest team to England in a group whose other teams are Serbia (43), Bosnia (72) and Estonia (77).
Houghton said: “The ultimate aim is to progress as much as we can to be successful at the Euro finals, then in the World Cup too after having a taste of success when we won the bronze medal at last year’s finals.
“To do that we’re trying to change our mentality, that trait in England of people looking on the negative side of things. We’re working on that on ourselves within the team and I feel that we’re making steps towards something that can be great.
“We want to potentially have regular success at major tournaments, a very exciting prospect that we’re determined to make happen.” So, as the captain might sing, ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative’…