It’s anyone’s knockout round.
After eight group stage fixtures, there haven’t been any lopsided results. Not even close. The highest goal differential stands at merely two goals – and that was in just one game.
In each match we’ve watched the momentum seesaw between opponents. The favored team has always been put on the back foot (remember the final seven minutes of the Germany/Canada match) and/or have needed time to figure out how to break down their opponents (i.e. Sweden/Colombia, France/Nigeria, Brazil/Australia and on and on).
The big fish have shown some vulnerability (Germany, U.S., Brazil) while the minnows (Equatorial Guinea, Colombia) have earned praise, but no points. From where we stand today, is there any team we can prohibitively say won’t make the knockout round? Nigeria probably. Colombia perhaps. And that’s only because of the level of quality around them, not necessarily because of their lack of class. Trying to predict the outcomes of the rest of the group matches has become a futile task. Expect the unexpected, and all that.
The U.S. has played the best 45 minutes of soccer thus far.
That would be Germany’s honor, but Canada gave them a real challenge in the first 45 – particularly in central midfield. In a complete about face, the U.S. completely bossed North Korea in the second half on Tuesday, and in every area of the park. Maybe it was the “struck by lightning” excuse that did North Korea in or perhaps the U.S. are just plain good.
It’s been a low scoring affair.
This is the lowest scoring first round of group matches in any Women’s World Cup, and by quite some distance. Here’s some historical perspective. The following is the average number of goals scored in each game by the end of the first set of opening round fixtures in past World Cups:
It’s important to note that there has been at least one blowout in every previous tournament by this stage:
In 2007 there was Germany 11, Argentina 0.
In 2003 it was Japan 6, Argentina 0.
1999 saw Brazil 7, Mexico 1.
1995 had Norway 8, Nigeria 0.
And in 1991 it was Italy 5, Chinese Taipei 0.
All of those score lines have vastly inflated the averages, but that only reinforces the point. So what are the causes? Increased parity (definitely), more defensive matches (eh), and loads of missed shots (yes, that).
The 2010 FIFA World Cup was derided for low-scoring, turgid matches. The average number of goals by the end of the first group stage matches? 1.5 – only slightly lower than this tournament. But at least these games have been engaging.
As was hoped for, the tournament has shown how much the women’s game has progressed.
More competitive matches are a telltale sign of this, for sure, but there are many other instances of this: The technical ability observed in how often teams have retained possession, the organized defenses, the quality of the goals scored.
Then there’s the tactics, like how Australia had completely out-thought Brazil in the first half by making them play with a deep defensive line that didn’t allow for much Joga Bonita-ing. Brazil changed things up a bit in the second half, and finally broke through with a lovely piece of skill from Rosana.
One benchmark that’s used to illustrate how the men’s game has developed is to observe the speed of play. Watch the final of the 1970 FIFA World Cup; generally considered the best edition in history:
[vsw id=”BYWy4Ey7PfM” source=”youtube” width=”500″ height=”450″ autoplay=”no”]
It almost looks like they’re playing underwater, at least when in comparison to the blistering pace that the game is played at today. You enter dubious territory when you start comparing men’s and women’s soccer as they each have their unique virtues. But it’s hard to watch a match like the Germany vs. Canada and not acknowledge the quick pace the game was played at.
The professionalism of the women’s game, whether that be at the club or national team level, has to be credited for the marked development.
It can only get better.
[More after the jump]
Rather arbitrary power rankings. Note the separations between teams ranked 1-2, 3-5, and 6-16.
1.) Germany – Still the favorites, mostly because of the home advantage, the precision, and the stacked bench. Have to keep their heads *if* they concede, though. And remain calm under immense pressure.
2.) USA – The U.S. played to its fullest capability in the second half on Tuesday and dominated. Other teams are correct to pay respect, so long as the team keeps performing at that level.
3.) Japan – The defense hasn’t gotten taller in the past three days, but Japan’s possession game and set piece threat separates them from the rest.
4.) Canada – Christine Sinclair’s gutsy and determined performance against Germany embodied Canada’s time in the World Cup so far. Get more shots on target and sort out the outside back positions, and they’re set for a deep run. (Note: Christine Sinclair looks doubtful for tomorrow’s match against France. We’ll see.)
5.) Brazil – Kleiton Lima’s 3-4-3 system with a sweeper in front of the back line looked unbalanced and unsettled against Australia. A lack of sufficient preparation also undoubtedly had something to do with that. But like Rosana showed today, they’re capable of conjuring up bits of magic.
6.) Sweden – That defense was watertight and organized against Colombia, even if the midfield became unstuck on occasion. They also couldn’t buy a goal for much of the match. Again, just have to get more shots
on frame in the back of the net.
7.) Mexico – Surprise packages of the tournament so far. When they finally tipped the scales in midfield against England, there was no turning back. Just have to create more chances, because you can’t bank on converting screamers from 30 yards out every time game.
8.) France – Showed hints of what they’re capable of, namely good movement and dangerous link-up play in the final third. Bini just has to settle on an appropriate strike partner for Delie, because Abily didn’t make the grade on Sunday. Tomorrow’s a huge match.
9.) England – Became far too harried by Mexico in the last half, resulting in a fairly worrying performance. Fitness also looks to be a concern, as most of the players flat out ran out of gas in the final stages of the match. Also, Smith will be key. And Yankey has to be more involved. Williams’ header is the only reason they’re slightly above Australia.
10.) Australia – The Matildas were well-organized and defended as a unit against Brazil. The apparent inability to finish (or even come close to finishing) is a worry. De Vanna needs to be more patient on the ball.
11.) Norway – Not a good performance against Equatorial Guinea, but they got the goal and ground out the result. Landsem’s side was bereft of ideas in the first half and had no answers for Equatorial Guinea’s physicality.
12.) New Zealand – They stuck with what they knew most (the long ball), and it paid off. For a while. Just have to make the full 90 and not have lapses of concentration in defense.
13.) Equatorial Guinea – Only so low because Anonma couldn’t get a shot on frame. That demoted her performance from being great to above average. The team’s skill on the ball and ability to stay compact was impressive. Just have to avoid fatigue.
14.) North Korea – Again, only so low because they couldn’t find a goal. North Korea hardly mishandled or miskicked a ball in the first half, but then totally capitulated in the second.
15.) Colombia – Rodallega looks to be a real player, and she gave Colombia’s attack some life in lieu of an absent Rincon. They had some good sequences but never quite came together to work as a team.
16.) Nigeria – Their basement-level placement is deceptive; Nigeria held their own against France and remained defensively compact. Nkowcha (or anybody, really) needs to be more dangerous in the attack, though.