Women’s World Cup qualifiers: ‘You live for these games’ – Bell ready for crucial Austria test

Megan Bell returned to the Northern Ireland squad for the first time in two years for February’s friendlies in Spain
At your place: Friday, April 8 Kick-off: 7:30 pm BST Venue: Stadion Wiener Neustadt, Austria
Coverage: Live stream on BBC Sport website and BBC iPlayer

“I would be a liar if I said I didn’t want to be in the squad for the Euros.”

After returning to action following a horrific 18-month injury lay-off, Megan Bell had a goal in mind when speaking to BBC Sport in November.

It wasn’t any normal injury which forced Bell away from her passion. A stress fracture discovered in May 2020 was initially meant to keep her out for six weeks, but after two surgeries and a titanium rod in her legthe midfielder finally returned to action for Rangers at the end of last year.

Akin to her performances on the pitch, the 20-year-old had to show tenacity and resilience to fight back and earn her place in Kenny Shiels’ squad.

Bell earned a recall for February’s three friendlies in Marbella, and she retained her place for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers with Austria and England after impressing.

It may not be the ultimate dream of making the Euros just yet, but it’s a positive step for the talented midfielder ahead of July’s tournament.

February’s games gave her a taste of international football once again. But now, after watching NI’s history-making qualification 12 months ago from afar, Bell is ready for her return to the big time.

“It was tough to watch from the sideline, no one never wants to do that,” admitted Bell on her recovery.

“I’m delighted to be given the opportunity to be in the squad and be around the team again, so I’m very happy.

“You live for the big games and these are the games you want to play in.”

‘We know we can win’

After their historic Euro 2022 qualification, in which Bell played a role in the early games before her injury, Northern Ireland are aiming to reach the World Cup for the first time.

The match against Austria on Friday is the first of two huge games in Group D. Leaders England travel to Belfast on Tuesday, with Northern Ireland and Austria level on points, five back on the Lionesses.

Both NI and Austria sides still have to face England and will be expected to pick up maximum points against two lower-ranked sides in their final three qualifiers, which puts extra importance on the encounter in Wiener Neustadt.

“These are the types of games that any footballer wants to play in, whether you are playing at grassroots level or international level,” said Bell.

“It’s a massive game, a really big game. Our full focus is on Friday before we even look at Tuesday.”

Austria scored a dramatic late equalizer in October’s 2-2 draw in Belfast and, with head-to-head a determining factor, whoever wins on Friday will be in a favorable position to finish runners-up behind England and secure a play-off spot for the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

The Lionesses travel to Belfast the following Tuesday, with the game set to take place in front of a record crowd for a women’s match in Northern Ireland with more than 14,000 tickets sold at Windsor Park, three times as many as the previous record set against Latvia in September.

Despite ranking 25 places below Austria, Northern Ireland are on a good run of form and their confidence will be boosted by October’s draw in Belfast, where NI led their opponents until the injury-time equalizer.

Since then, they hit 20 goals without replay in two wins over North Macedonia in November and drew with Switzerland, ranked one spot ahead of Austria, in Spain in February.

Twenty-two domestic-based players have moved to a full-time professional model in the build-up to the Euros which, in theory, should eradicate the disadvantage of Northern Ireland’s squad largely being made up of part-time players, as they were in October’s draw.

“If we stick to our gameplan and carry it out then we know we can win the game,” said Bell.

“We know Austria are ranked far higher than us. We go into nearly all of our games as underdogs, but with the way we are playing at the minute we can take real confidence and be confident we can get a lot of success in the game .

“We have been doing a lot of analysis, and there will be more analysis and more work on the training pitch.

“If we absorb all that information and then carry it out on the pitch then there is no reason that we can’t get the three points.”

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