The storylines get much more focused once you get down to eight teams. It’s easier to keep them all in your head and not be distracted by the incessant barrage of fluff stories revolving around potential upsets, cinderella stories, individual battles against odds. It’s simple now and a good opportunity to take stock of the teams that got here, who looks poised to continue and who may be a bit bewildered at the company they are keeping.
Old guard represented
First thing worth noting is that we have not seen a changing of the guard. In the previous six World Cups, the USA has won two, Germany has also won two and Japan won the last one in 2011. The only previous champion to not make the quarter finals is Norway who won it in twenty years ago in 1995.
In fact if you include all the countries that have been second, third or fourth as well, the only other ones not represented in these quarter finals are Sweden and Brazil, both of whom were eliminated in the round of sixteen.
Flipping that around there are two debutantes in the quarter finals who previously have never placed in the top four; England and Australia. Canada’s sole top four appearance was a fourth place finish in 2003.
So familiar faces abound. My preference would have been to see Cameroon advance but few others can really feel hard done by.
How they got to this point
China: They entered with low expectations based on the ‘rebuilding’ trope abetted by tales of a key injury to their leading striker. Their last minute loss to Canada put them behind the eight ball but a win against the Dutch and a draw, aided by the bizarre attempt at time wasting by their manager Hao Wei, against New Zealand saw them through to the second round. In that game against Cameroon they were second best in every stat aside from goals scored and went through 1-0. In other words, hardly convincing and heavily reliant on keeper Wang Fei.
USA: Naturally there’s been no shortage of coverage of the USWNT. What has been perhaps most surprising is that the star in supposed decline, Abby Wambach, has not only played ahead of a younger, more dynamic group of strikers in Alex Morgan, Kirsten Press and Sydney Leroux but has outshone all of them and quieted many, including myself, who thought she would be more of an anchor than a lifeline for the team given the necessity of playing to her strengths (ie. in the air) if she’s going to be on the field. Rested against Sweden, it’s telling that the team has not scored a goal while Wambach has been on the bench.
But the focus has really been on Wambach more than it should. Megain Rapinoe is a fantastic player and clearly making a bid to be considered the best female player in the world at this tournament. And while we like to go on about our own Kadeisha Buchanan, fledgling American centreback Julie Johnston, who just turned 20, is giving Buchanan a run for her money as best defender at this World Cup.
But it’s really been paint by numbers for the team so far with little flair beyond Rapinoe and a reliance on Wambach that at some point may become an over-reliance. But when the Plan B attacking mode (Press, Leroux, Morgan) has proven to be slow out the gates, it’s not a surprise that manager Jill Ellis is going to stick with Wambach and the aerial attack that plays to her strengths.
Germany: Only tested by Norway (1-1 draw) in their round robin group, the Germans topped their group on goal difference but that arguably gave them a tougher opponent in Sweden in the round of 16 than second place Norway, who still managed to lose to England in their game. The Germans clearly found their game against Sweden and embarrassed Pia Sundhage’s team 4-1. Credentials re-asserted, their quarter final fixture against France is actually the game I thought would be the final. Germany will need keeper Nadine Angerer to be on form as France have scored fantastic goals from both in close and from distance.
France: The French have been two different teams in their four games so far. Sluggish against the English in their opening 1-0 win and then fully asleep against Colombia in a two-nil loss, reality jolted them back to their strengths and they piled misery on top of Mexico scoring three times in the opening 13 minutes on their way to a 5-0 win. In the round of sixteen another early blitzkrieg against South Korea put them up two-nil after just eight minutes. They won three-nil and all three goals were among the best you’ll see at the tournament. They are on form and a treat to watch when this is the case.
Japan: It was hard to tell in Japan’s round robin games if they were deliberately playing in second gear or if the team’s good-enough-to-win approach was an indication their star power was fading. The second round match against the Dutch clearly answered that as an emphatic performance capped by a wonderful second goal signalled they were indeed the defending champions and were not going to be rolling over.
Australia: I watched Australia train when they were in Vancouver. What looked like a team of wickedly athletic Pellerudians at the time was really just them preparing for their first game against the Americans. They played 10v9 on a three quarter field attacking one goal and every time the ball got played out to an assistant coach filling in at right back he woofed a 40 yard ball into the mix for the centre backs to battle for against strikers. Clearly, in retrospect, they knew this was what they’d be facing in a Wambach led American attack and they were right. While they lost that game 3-1, the Aussies their win over Nigeria and draw with Sweden allowed them to finish second, thus avoiding Germany and getting Brazil. Seeing they were more sophisticated than mere long ball merchants, I picked them (on Twitter) to beat Brazil who had looked unconvincing in an easy group. Now they face Japan in what will be a strong contrast in styles.
England: Aside from Lucy Bronze’s cracking winner against Norway, England have relied heavily on set pieces. A fortunate free kick against Colombia resulted in their first goal (off the rebound from the shot) and an even more fortunate penalty sealed victory. Two goals against a sub-par Mexico can’t disguise the fact that, like Canada, the goals are scarce and seldom the result of deliberate, inventive build up play. Factor in that their keeper, Karen Bardsley, imported from California, has run the gamut from shakier than Shane MacGowan on the wagon for a month to decidedly…competent and they will have their work cut out for them if they want to advance.
Canada: Of course we’ll leave Canada for last. I really want to be positive. I do. I went to the Switzerland game and I’ll be at the England game on Saturday. I get excited every odd half chance that comes along and felt really happy for them when they held on against the Swiss to advance. But in the cold light of a computer screen reality trumps all that. The simple truth is that while we did win our group, if we had missed our penalty against China in the opening game and New Zealand had scored theirs against us rather than hitting the crossbar, all other things unchanged, Canada would not have advanced. We would be out and the same inquisition that followed the three and out performance in 2011 would just be gathering steam. That’s how thin the margins were. We have scored three goals in four games. A penalty, a fortuitous bounce from a deflection off a Dutch defender that led to an Ashley Lawrence side footer from ten yards and a nice finish from forward slash defender slash forward Josee Belanger off of what was either a very quick thinking set up from Sinclair or a flukey touch off her boot as she was pressured by a Swiss defender. Three goals in four games no matter how you slice it. On the positive side, we’ve only given up one goal and that came as a result of having to leave a crucial clearance to someone other than Kadeisha Buchanan. Rough few days for Carmelina Moscato what with Latham-gate but she had to do better than bash that ball off the Dutch attackers shins. It broke in behind her and the Dutch finished nicely.
What are the positives for Canada? Pretty obvious really. Buchanan has been outstanding every game. Alyssha Chapman has been almost as good but has had some luck surviving a couple of desperation tackles that could well have been penalties (she conceded the penalty against New Zealand) or free kicks in critical areas. Erin McLeod has been a rock when she’s had to be. The players you need to be solid rather than liabilities have for the most part held their end of the bargain. Playing Belanger at right back has proven to be a smart decision by John Herdman. Desiree Scott is getting stronger as the tournament goes on. Ashley Lawrence has not let us down. Kaylyn Kyle has been commanding when she has come on and when she has started. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the team’s run to the quarter finals is that they have done it with their two best players being non-factors. Sophie Schmidt has been unable to find her form and Christine Sinclair, aside from laying off the ball to Schmidt for the shot that got blocked and fell to Lawrence for the goal against the Dutch and perhaps assisting on Belanger’s goal against Switzerland has done nothing but miss three chances against New Zealand. As I said in an earlier article though, we cannot expect Sinclair to carry this team. Those days are done. She needs a supporting cast and that has to be led by Schmidt. I struggle to think of a single pass Schmidt has made that has released Sinclair for even a sight at goal. It has to happen now that Canada is actually facing a legitimate challenge in the form of England.
Jonelle Foligno has been passable. Melissa Tancredi and Adriana Leon have been poor, in over their heads at this level really. What was really unfortunate was that Jessie Fleming, after a non-descript game against China when she came on, was just starting to be influential against the Dutch when she was taken off. She didn’t feature against the Swiss so it’s hard to see her get time against England but she’s still one of the few who can operate with a bit of inventiveness in the attacking third. Beyond that, Rhiann Wilkinson is not going to light the world on fire and has been caught out once on a long ball over her head in limited minutes but she is a good choice at right back as it allows the burgeoning Belanger to play as a forward on the right rather than Leon or Tancredi. Lauren Sesselmann is clearly not 100% game fit after her ACL tear but Herdman will likely persist with her.
USA v China. Even without suspended Rapinoe, the only thing standing between a comfortable win for the States is an excellent performance from the impressive Wang Fei in the Chinese goal. This should not be a difficult game for Ellis’ team. Prediction: 2-0 USA
Germany v France. Really a toss up as far as I’m concerned. Whichever team’s strikers and keepers are most on form will likely win it. No prediction just a hope that it turns out to be as great a game as these two teams are capable of delivering.
Japan v Australia. Australia is a bit like the Atletico Madrid or Olympic Marseille of the women’s game. You just don’t look forward to playing them. The longer they keep it close the more difficult physically and mentally it becomes to match them and you run the very real risk of being upset if you’re Japan. Prediction: Japan by one.
Canada v England. A pre-tourney exhibition between the two teams in Hamilton would best be described as 89 minutes of drudgery and a fantastic goal by Schmidt. England have impressed me for 45 minutes but that was the most important 45 of the tournament so far: the second half against Norway. I wish I could say Canada have impressed me for a full 45 minutes but again their best performance was likely the last 20 minutes of the first half against the Swiss and the first 15-20 minutes of the second half in that same game. In a game that will likely be settled by set pieces, even penalty kicks after extra time, I’ll go with my pre-tourney prediction where I said Canada would only advance to the semis if the drew England in the quarter finals. Canada by one.