LONDON (Reuters) - All eyes will be on whether England women can finally end their major trophy drought as they go into their home European Championship next week as one of the favourites, led by 2017 winning coach Sarina Wiegman.
The tournament, postponed last year due to COVID-19, is expected to be one of the most open in history with established nations such as Sweden and Germany contending with rising powerhouses like Spain and holders the Netherlands.
Wiegman led the Dutch to their first ever title five years ago and took charge of England last September looking to achieve the same feat for a team who have twice finished runners-up in the Euros (1984, 2009) but never won.
The 52-year-old has already worked her magic on a side who reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2019 and have not yet tasted defeat in 13 games under the Dutchwoman.
The Lionesses' squad is stacked with talent, bearing the fruits of England's top tier Women's Super League having turned fully professional in 2018.
Attendances at club games have greatly increased in recent years and the tournament opener, Group A's England v Austria at Old Trafford on July 6, is already a sell-out and is expected to be the first of many spectator records broken over the next month.
Sweden captain Magda Eriksson, who plays for domestic champions Chelsea, tipped the hosts to be her country's main rival to lift the trophy at Wembley.
"If I don't have to say Sweden, I would say that England have a really good team, an exciting team with a lot of talent," Eriksson told Reuters.
However, the Swedes, ranked second in the world, have experience of going the distance having won the inaugural edition in 1984, before it was organised by European soccer's governing body UEFA.
Their squad benefits from a wide array of experience with players plying their trade all over the continent, from veteran goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl at Atletico Madrid to 23-year-old Juventus defender Amanda Nilden who had a breakout season winning Serie A and reaching the Champions League quarter-finals.
However, when it comes to a winning pedigree in the Euros there is one side that cannot be matched - record eight-time winners Germany.
Martina Voss-Tecklenburg's team have been going through an underwhelming period of late, which included a shock 3-2 defeat to Serbia in 2023 World Cup qualifying in April. They will also be without influential midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsan who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in May.
Nevertheless, it would be foolish to write off the Germans, who won six consecutive titles from 1995 to 2013.
They will be in Group B alongside Spain who will fancy their chances too, despite having only once gone beyond the quarter-finals.
Since the previous tournament, women's football in the country has gone from strength to strength with club side Barcelona becoming a superpower, winning the Champions League in 2021.
Spain are captained by Barca forward Alexia Putellas who was awarded the Ballon d'Or last year.
The first woman to win that award, Norway's Ada Hegerberg in 2018, makes her long-awaited return to international football having not represented the national team for five years between 2017 and April this year due to a dispute with the country's football association.
Norway fans can now relish the prospect of the striker being unleashed on their rivals, coming off the back of winning club side Olympique Lyonnais' record eighth Champions League title last month.
She holds the all-time record for the most goals in that competition with 59. She is only 26-years-old.
"There is no doubt that Ada's importance on the pitch is great. She is one of the world's best forwards and of course contributes a lot of quality to the team," Norway coach Martin Sjogren told Reuters. "I am very happy to have Ada back in the national team."
France would usually be among the favourites but there have been signs that all might not be well in Corinne Diacre's camp. The team underwhelmed at their home World Cup in 2019, losing in the quarter-finals to eventual champions the United States.
Diacre has also surprisingly chosen to travel to England without influential senior players Amandine Henry and Eugenie Le Sommer, their all-time leading goalscorer (86 goals), in her squad of 23.
That may be good news for fellow Group D side Italy, who are looking to build on their steady progress under coach Milena Bertolini who led her country to their first World Cup appearance in 20 years in 2019.
For holders the Netherlands, a repeat is not impossible, especially with record goalscorer Vivianne Miedema up front.
The 2019 World Cup runners-up were humbled 5-1 by England in a friendly last week but are boosted by playmaker Lieke Martens recovering from injury just in time.
The Euros run from July 6-31 across eight cities in England.
(Reporting by Christian Radnedge; Additional reporting by Phil O'Connor; Editing by Toby Davis)