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Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned : Day 8

I spent most of the Brazil-Norway match trying to figure out what formation Brazil was playing, what their movement was. For the most part, I was baffled.

Were there three true forwards? Was it a diamond formation in the midfield? Were they using a true sweeper, or did Daiane come up sometimes and just look like a sweeper when the other team had the ball?

I forgot, though, what a legendary high school basketball coach used to tell me after his team won (he’s actually better than he gives himself credit for, but the point is still valid).

“Talent is the divider. You can’t win without talent.”

And, in the end, as frustrating as it for analysts and armchair coaches like me, Brazil may win the World Cup because they have the best players. Occam’s Razor lives again.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a thing or two (or 10), and here are the 10 things we learned in Day 8 of Germany 2011.

1) There are some things that defy explanation

Gyoengyi Gaal is one of the top referees in the world. She is the first female ref to officiate men’s professional games in her home country of Hungary, she did a quarterfinal (and third place involving the U.S.) match in the 2007 World Cup and semifinal in Euro 2009. It stands to reason that she would be picked for a semifinal in this tournament, or even (gulp) the final.
Which makes the incident today in the Australia-Equatorial Guinea match even more bizarre. I’m sure you’ve seen it by now, and my immediate thoughts were trying to figure out what happened. But after a few seconds, it hits you, “What the heck was that?”
I’m not sure what Gaal was thinking. I’m not sure she knows what she was thinking. It was just one of those brainfreezes that everyone gets every once in a while. Unfortunately, it happened in front of the whole world.
At least in this U-20 game at last year’s World Cup, the ref had an inkling that the ball might be out of bounds.

2) Unfortunately for Gaal, it was a poorly officiated game, even taking out the handball

Again, this is not a personal attack against Gaal, and it should be pointed out that officials are graded all the way up, so she must be a very good referee to get as far as she did, but it wasn’t her day.
People complain that referees that hand out too many cards have lost control of the match, but sometimes – as it was today – that’s precisely what the game needs. Equatorial Guinea should have been a shown a couple of cards early, and then if they continue to foul repeatedly, you have to send people off. Otherwise, you get what you had today, a chippy hackfest which is ugly to watch. And this was ugly.

3) Genoveva Anonma wasn’t nearly as likable today

Which is kind of sad, because she did score twice and almost singlehandedly keep her team in the game. But she also was petulant with the opponents, the officials, and – on a couple of occasions, it appeared – her own teammates, as she didn’t think about passing too much.
Part of the frustration for Equatorial Guinea seemed like the formation. Marcello Frigerio changed to a 3-6-1, and it didn’t seem like his team got it.

4) Australia is dangerous, but very young

I found this interview with Leena Khamis, who was probably Women of the Match today, interesting. It’s not like the men’s game, where most of the stars will make plenty of money to retire on in the game.

You saw the best and the worst of Australia today, young players like Samantha Kerr and Emily van Egmond (whose finish n the winning goal was underrated), but you saw young Servet Uzunlar make two giant mistakes in the back, too.
If I’m the U.S., I’d probably want to play Australia rather than Norway because of that, but in the quarterfinals, I guess you take whatever comes your way.

5) Australia with Kate Gill might be a threat to go a long way

It’s easy to forget that Australia is without Kate Gill, the 2010 Asian Player of the Year. Gill, at 26, would figure to be in her prime for this tournament, too, but went down with a knee injury in the spring. We shall see, but that might be the difference for Australia against Norway on Wednesday.

6) Brazil has Marta and no one else does

As I said in the open, we can talk about tactics until we’re blue in the face, but Marta can do so much just by being Marta. You can make a pretty strong argument that there was a foul on the first goal, but she basically created two goals by herself, and that’s the difference in any match, in any round.
Marta is now tied with Michelle Akers for most goals ever (12) at the World Cup, and if she doesn’t break it against Equatorial Guinea, it’s likely because she was rested.
The great thing about soccer is that you can scheme all you want to stop her – and people will the rest of the tournament – but it probably won’t work.

7) Kleiton Lima may be a tactical genius, but probably not

His deep sweeper 3-4-3 looking formation has two wins and two clean sheets in the first two matches, and you can’t knock the numbers, but I’m concluding: a) he has some pretty darn good players to work with; and b) he just hasn’t faced an attack that will give him much trouble yet.
The thing that bothered me even more than the sweeper was the lack of pressure in the opponents’ half. Maybe Lima feels like his team isn’t in shape to chase, maybe he just wants to counter, but Cristiane pressured about three times, almost caused mistakes, and finally did on Brazil’s third goal. Maybe he wasn’t watching the rest of the tournament?
But he’s 2-0, and I’m not.

8 ) There were probably two fouls on the lead up to Marta’s first goal

I’d probably say Marta fouled Nora Holstad Berge, although I can see why it wasn’t given. The bigger issue for me was upfield, where Emilie Haavi just seemed to get dumped by Erika in the Brazil third, and Kari Seitz saw nothing wrong with it. Such is life.

9) Brazil is capable of levels that no other team can reach

That three minute span coming out of halftime that saw Brazil score twice? Ridiculous. If you get Marta clicking with Cristiane and Rosana, look out. Obviously, you don’t have to tell the United States that, they saw it in 2007.

10) Norway might have enough to give Australia problems

Athletically, you give Australia the advantage, but Norway did get some chances in the second half by getting the ball forward, and I already mentioned the youth in the Australian team, you wonder if they can hold it together against an onslaught of corner kicks and balls into the box. The first goal will be extremely important in that match.

Bonus:

Tom Sermanni = class act

How many coaches would have completely flipped out on the non-penalty kick call? But Sermanni didn’t, and his team – as is often the case – followed his demeanor, they stayed calm enough to get through it and eventually, they got their three points.

Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned: Day 4

Sometimes the real world can be a cruel, cruel place. Australia and Equatorial Guinea began Wednesday’s action as underdogs, teams that would likely have to get very lucky to get a result against Brazil and Norway, respectively.

As it turned out, they had no luck at all.

Now, in the end, just as in any of life’s endeavors, you make your own luck and neither the Aussies or the Equatoguineans (my favorite world of the World Cup, by the way) could find a way to score a goal, and therefore got nothing, absolutely nothing, they lost (say it in your best Willy Wonka voice).

But as the final whistle sounded on the Australia-Brazil match, while the poor Matildas looking disconsolate after a last-second corner kick rattled around the box for one seemed like an hour, I thought, “Darn it”.

I didn’t pick Australia or Equatorial Guinea, I have no ties to either, they just didn’t to deserve to lose today. And, as these things go, they may not get a better chance to win than they did today.

Onto the 10 things we learned in Day 4 of Germany 2011.

1) It’s good to be Genoveva Anonma

Well, except for the whole “being accused of being a man, thing”. I’m sure that’s terrible.
However, imagine you’re Genoveva, you just turned 22, you led your tiny country no one ever heard of to its first World Cup, no one thinks you have a chance to do anything, and your coach tells you to run around, get the ball as many times as possible, and shoot whenever you get within the same zip code as the opponents’ goal.
I’d probably paint my hair Equatoguinean (2) green as well. Anonma took 13 (?!?) shots, and was the most entertaining player in the tournament. We hope she can keep it up for a couple more games. The only downside …

2) Finishing seems like a lost art at this World Cup

The only thing Anonma (the official roster lists her an Anonman, must be a translation thing) was missing was the finish. After trying her luck from distance in the first half, she got her first great look at the stroke of halftime when she hit Norwegian goalkeeper Ingrid Hjelmseth right in the chest. In the 53rd and 71st minute, she was clear again, but couldn’t make it work either time.
Alas, she’s not alone at this World Cup, Norway took a page out of the Swedish handbook, and Australia missed more than their fair share of chances. We’ll see if it changes going forward, but it might be the difference between winning and losing the World Cup (yeah, pretty obvious, but still).

3) Equatorial Guinea had a couple of other players, too

I was particularly impressed with Carolina (Martins Pereira). Of course, until a few years ago, she was probably about as Equatoguinean (3) as I was, but the veteran Brazilian was a calm presence when her team needed it in the back. (And, hey, it’s not like men’s teams aren’t doing the same thing in naturalizing players, I guess). Despite Cat Whitehill talking about the weakness of Miriam (Silva da Paixao) in goal (another Brazilian), I thought she was reasonably solid, she punched out a few balls and didn’t make any glaring mistakes. Of course, Carolina was taking her goal kicks, however, which is never good. But there’s reason to think, they’ll at least make things interesting in their last two matches.

4) I don’t despise direct play, but you need a Plan B, too

It looked like either Norway was surprised how good the Equatoguineans (4) were in the air, or didn’t really have another plan other than to lump the ball forward at every opportunity and hope for the best. I guess it’s a good sign for the women’s game that a team like Equatorial Guinea forced Norway to try something else, as I said, it’s a shame they didn’t make them pay for it at the other end.
I was encouraged to see Norway start in a 4-2-3-1 (not a 4-4-2), and and they did have some bright spots…

5) There were some bright spots for Norway, so there’s hope going forward

You can add 19-year-old (and just turned it two weeks ago) Emilie Haavi to our growing list of young standouts, as other than Anonma, she was probably Woman of the Match, which made it fitting that she got the winner in the 84th minute (with Equatorial Guinea going for the winner). Of course, Haavi is a decidedly un-Norwegian like player, and not just because her hair is not completely blonde. She has skill, and wasn’t afraid to use it.
The only other player on the Norway roster shorter than Haavi was second-half sub Lene Mykjaland, who made an immediate impact, but had to be subbed out herself after just 24 minutes on the field. Elise Thorsnes on the other wing had her moments as well, Norway is going to need those players if they want any shot of advancing, even with this result.

6) Brazil was using a sweeper

Like finding evidence of a reportedly extinct animal, there it was for Brazil (of all people) against Australia. I made fun of Nigeria for using it in past World Cups, and it was personally jarring.
My playing career was mostly as a sweeper, and my coaching career started a decade using a 4-4-2 with a sweeper because that’s all I ever played. But once more and more games came on television, especially the 2002 Men’s and 2003 Women’s World Cup, no one was using a sweeper (except the Nigerian women). No one. I really haven’t seen it since, except among some local coaches, who – like me – probably knew nothing else and don’t watch as much television.
And it wasn’t a high sweeper, it was a deep sweeper, with Daiane way back and Aline and Erika basically man-marking the two Australian forwards in front of her.
And so Kielton Lima is either revolutionizing tactical soccer, or he’s 20 years behind the times. Obviously, I’m biased, but I’m going with the latter. Australia and Lisa Da Vanna should have made them pay and didn’t, and Brazil (which was listed as a 3-4-3) never seemed sure where they were supposed to be defensively. But Lima got his clean sheet and three points.

7) Again, it’s about the goals, stupid

We can talk tactics and 100 other things, but when Christiane keeps the ball alive early in the second half and Rosana takes two brilliant touches and buries it, that’s the difference in the game. It’s the reason why Didier Drogba has been so valuable, why Chicharito is so valuable, and the difference between a good team and a championship team.
You can blame young right back Caitlin Foord for not stepping up, or the center backs for failing to clear the ball, but give credit to Rosana, too.
Despite all their failings today, Brazil is capable of scoring just like they did today – in lightning quick fashion – and I don’t know how many other teams in this tournament are.

8) Australia has a future, if not a present

Foord was excellent at right back and doesn’t turn 17 until November, fellow teenager Emily Van Egmond didn’t stand out as much, but didn’t stand out in a bad way, either. Center back Servet Uzunlar just turned 22. Kyah Simon, who didn’t score, but was pretty dangerous and lively celebrated her 20th birthday earlier in the week. And, based on today’s performances, you’d still have to make Australia a favorite against Norway, wouldn’t you?

9) However, let’s not get too worked up over one game

Brazil and Norway, my picks to advance, were not good today, I’ll readily admit that, but one game does not a tournament make. What kind of adjustments do Eli Landsem and Lima make going forward is the big question? Does Lima scrap the pseudo 3-4-3 and old-school sweeper? Does Landsem order the ball played to the feet of her skill players?
We may look back on the first game as an aberration if Brazil and Norway make a deep run.

10) Low-scoring does not necessarily mean bad or unentertaining

Scoring is down, way down, in this World Cup, but the Equatorial Guinea-Norway match was the most entertaining of this World Cup and would have been even if it had finished scoreless. So I’m not worried about the lack of scoring, even if people that don’t actually watch the games will point to it as reasons why people shouldn’t watch.

Bonus:

Europe is the only undefeated confederation

But yet between Sweden, Norway, England, and France, they probably haven’t been as impressive as CONCACAF or Asia (with Australia). Discuss.

Predictions: It’s Germany’s Show, But Look Out For France And, Yes, “Underdog” U.S.

With the World Cup fast approaching (so close you can almost touch it), we’re happy to announce that Ray Curren has rented a room in AWK’s summer timeshare. You might be familiar with Ray’s previous work for World Soccer Reader and Set Piece Analysts. He’ll be providing updates for us throughout the tournament. Here he gives his tournament predictions:

 

I guess it’s in vogue to say that the United States women’s soccer team is down these days. Everyone has caught up and passed them, the youth system needs to be changed, just as on the men’s side, we can’t develop players.

But a closer look at the 2011 World Cup sees an obvious favorite in Germany, who will have the crowd on their side, and may very well expose all of the negative things said about the U.S. above.

Other than that, folks, though, I’m not so sure anyone is better than the States.

You can say Brazil, they did trash the U.S. four years ago 4-0 in perhaps the darkest day for U.S. women’s soccer, and Marta is still around to torture opponents, but one person does not a squad make, and the rest of the team may not be quite as good.

Despite close scorelines, Japan really wasn’t much of a match for the U.S. in preliminary games. Australia is extremely young and banged up. Norway doesn’t have the technical skill to keep up. Canada certainly knows the U.S., but they’re on the other side of the bracket.

Also on the other side is the potential breakout team of this World Cup in France, meaning the U.S. can’t meet them until the semifinals. Unfortunately, if both teams win their group, Germany and the United States will meet in the semis, and that could be bad news for the U.S. Or it could mean a return to glory.

But they do have to get out of their group first.

Here are my quick predictions:

GROUP A

Quick Preview (in order of predicted finish):

Despite being heavy favorites, Germany didn’t exactly get an easy group to navigate, starting with an opener against Canada on Sunday. But it’s a machine Silvia Neid has put together. Not only have they won back-to-back World Cups, but this team is probably better than either of those, with veterans Inka Grings and Birgit Prinz pushing along youngsters like Alexandra Popp. They shouldn’t be stopped, at least in the group stage.

Until I did some actual research, I was skeptical about France. Of course, usually when I do research on teams, it turns out to be false anyway, but we’ll see. Most of us know about Sonia Bompastor, but Marie-Laure Delie (21 goals in 20 caps) and some others may be more well-known in a couple of weeks. With the already mentioned failings of others, it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see a France-Brazil semifinal, or France in the final?

Canada is on the upswing after the whole Carolina Morace fiasco was ironed out, and Canada did win the 2010 Gold Cup remember (after Mexico beat the U.S. in the semis). Christine Sinclair and youngster Jonelle Filigno will be worth watching, but I think the Canadians just got stuck in the wrong group.

Speaking of the wrong group, Nigeria is in big, big trouble here. They have some players that do play in Europe (mostly Sweden), and Ngozi Uche has apparently brought some organization on board, but an 8-0 throttling at the hands of Germany in a friendly doesn’t bode well. I’m mostly interested to see if Uche brings back the sweeper that was Nigeria’s signature in the last two World Cups. It should be noted that Nigeria only conceded four times in the 2007 World Cup, including a 1-0 loss to the U.S. in which Lori Chalupny (remember her?) scored seconds into the match, and the Americans never could build on it. It is hard to take Nigeria seriously when you see stuff like this, though.

Random fact:

Although Germany scored eight in a friendly against Nigeria, they’ll be hard pressed to score more than they did against Argentina in 2007 when they put 11 past Argentina in the tournament opener. Argentina gave up 18 in the tournament.

Player to watch:

Helen Ukaonu, Nigeria – It was Ukaonu’s sublime equalizer last summer that drew Nigeria level and eventually allowed them to upset the United States on penalties at the U-20 World Cup last summer. Perpetua Nkwocha, their best striker, and possibly the best name in the tournament, also needs to be watched.

Game to watch:

Canada vs. France, June 30 – This match should decide who goes through to the knockout stage, and France will likely enter as favorite, but Canada – as has been discussed – can be dangerous.

Likely end of the road:

Germany – Champions (over France)
France –  Finals (loss to Germany)
Canada – Group Stage
Nigeria – Group Stage

GROUP B

Quick Preview (in order of predicted finish):

Is it possible that England is playing too well coming into this tournament? Coming off wins over the United States and Sweden in friendlies, and stuck in – let’s face it – the easiest of the four groups, hopes are high for Kelly Smith and crew. But Hope Powell’s team is also prone to bad losses: a loss to Scotland in March, a loss to Italy to open Euro 2009 (they went on to the final). But if Fara Williams is healthy, she should be the difference.

Well, we need at least one off the radar pick, and I’m going with New Zealand to advance. They’re young enough not to know better, they have nothing to lose, they’re in a weak group, and they seem to match up well with Japan in the opener. Of course, then they’ll get Germany in the quarterfinals.

Watching Japan against the U.S. in friendlies, they could move the ball, but they’re just tiny, and that could be a big problem against New Zealand in their opener. Japan also hasn’t been out of the group stage since 1995 and I just sense that – without much scoring prowess – up top – this may not be their year, either.

Mexico beat the United States less than a year ago, and nearly escaped with a 0-0 draw just two weeks ago, they’ve got Maribel Dominguez (who is 32 now?), they’ve got a few very good college players, so I think they’ll be competitive. But I don’t see them getting over the hump this year. Four years from now in Canada?

Random fact:

Hope Powell has been in charge of the England women’s national team since 1998, longest among any manager in this World Cup. Of course, Kelly Smith has been with the squad since 1995, or the same year Mexican goalkeeper Ceci Santiago was born.

Player to watch:

Amber Hearn, New Zealand – Hearn is in good form and has 22 goals in 46 caps for her national team. She actually plays her club football for the Ottawa Fury in the W-League. Also quick shoutout to Alina Garciamendez of Stanford, who is playing for Mexico.

Game to watch:

Japan vs. New Zealand, June 27 – If New Zealand is going to advance, they’re going to have to get a result in this game, and that will probably mean getting a goal off a set piece of some kind. Hearn can do that for them.

Likely end of the road:

England – Quarterfinals (loss to France)
New Zealand –  Quarterfinals (loss to Germany)
Japan – Group Stage
Mexico – Group Stage

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