WWC 2015: Quarter Final Preview. Canada, and the tournament, need a win here.
The round of 16 is done, which had it’s share of drama and entertainment, though just the one real upset and not even one game going to extra time never mind penalties. Now it’s the quarter finals and things are getting serious, there are no weaker teams only here due to the 24 team expansion left over, no gimmies and plenty of reputations on the line, question marks to be answered, including for the tournament overall.
France vs Germany, Montreal, 4 Eastern,
Probably the best two teams here and what should theoretically be the best game of the tournament. On the one hand it’s a shame that the groups were organised in such a way that these two meet so early on, but on the other hand, at least we do get to see this match-up, which might not have happened if they’d had to wait to the final, who cares that it’s just the quarter finals.
Germany got here by demolishing Sweden, who’ll be very disappointed with their showing here, 0 wins and not even making the quarter finals, 4-1, looking very good in the process. Injuries mean they don’t have their strongest squad, and they’ll also be missing Saskia Bartusiak due to suspension but they’ve been very impressive so far, Mattig and Sasic both leading the way with 5 goals. Of course at the last World Cup they looked good before running into Japan in the quarter finals, and there’s a good chance they could get tripped up again here.
That’s because their opponents are France. After their first couple of games, they looked good but weren’t scoring, shades of their final games at the 2012 Olympics, and they actually got upset by Colombia, but now they’ve found their scoring boots. After beating Mexico 5-0, they knocked off South Korea 3-0, if Eugenie le Sommer and co can keep scoring then they’re probably the best team in the tournament. Of course Germany is a big step up in class so there’s no guarantee of that, but this really really should be a great game, one where anyone pretending they know who’s going to win is a lying liar. I’ll predict France, but would in no way put money on anything, I just hope it goes to extra time and we get more of it.
China PR v USA, Ottawa, 7:30 Eastern
Probably the most fascinating team here, the States are certainly bringing the drama, Abby Wambach continuing her charm offensive now complaining about the referees and finally going far enough that she had to apologise. FIFA have decided not to suspend her, but is that a good thing? Would they be better off without her? Probably not, at this point their style seems pretty set, and if you’re going to play something designed to play to Wambach’s strengths, you might as well have her in there to take advantage. The 2-0 win over was easy enough but they made heavy weather of it considering they played almost a full half with Colombia down to 10 women and their 3rd string goalie. Defensively, they’ve been rock solid, and they’ve done what they needed to do so far, but haven’t really shown anything that suggest they’ll be able to do it when they face one of the top teams.
Of course China aren’t one of the top teams and have muddled through to this point, beating Cameroon 1-0 in the last round. They’ll put up an organised fight against the Americans but don’t look to have the talent to score against the US defence and will eventually be worn down and lose, a respectable showing for them but nothing more than that.
Australia vs Japan, Edmonton, 4 Eastern
One team has come further than most expected while another team seems to be struggling a lot more than you’d expect, it’ll be the struggling side that advances.
Australia got the biggest upset of the round of 16 (though it was probably the most predictable upset, including by yours truly) when they knocked off Brazil. Brazil never really impressed here, and the winning goal was a goalkeeper error more than anything, but still, that’s an eyebrow raising result, and add that to coming out of the group of death ahead of Sweden and in second place and it’s been an undeniable triumph for the Matildas so far. Can Lisa de Vanna, Kyah Simon and co lead them to another upset? Probably not, no, as despite a lot of strongish opponents, Japan are a different and much better proposition to what they’ve faced so far.
They are definitely an odd case Japan. To not care about results and simply watch them, they’re a very very good team, technical and almost to the point of hypnotic at times in possession, they’ve been controlling all their games so far, and yet without yet having faced one of even the second tier of sides, they haven’t looked convincing when it comes to that whole scoring goals thing. They clearly had more than enough to put away the Netherlands in the last round, but still just ended up squeaking a 2-1 win, at some point surely that has to come back to bite them. I don’t think Australia are good enough to be the team to make that happen though, it might well be another 1 goal victory for the Japanese, but a victory it will be.
Canada v England, Vancouver, 7:30 Eastern
Then we finally get to the big one and though at a significantly lower level, this is like Germany v France, it could easily go either way and I wouldn’t feel comfortable predicting any outcome. Both teams are very similar, as their 8th and 6th world ranking would suggest, and neither has really set the tournament on fire in any way. They look organised, but uninspired and uninspiring up front, and both have looked like they’ll get knocked out by the first team they face that’s better than them, and probably both would be disappointed if forced to acknowledge that they found that level in this game.
Whether reaching the quarter finals =success for Canada no matter what happens here has been debated a lot over the last few days. Some have suggested a quarter final place is very much a success, about as much as anyone could have demanded going into the tournament and thus, no matter how they got here, it’s all good, anything from here is gravy. Others suggest that merely beating a bunch of teams ranked below them, in a somewhat desperate fashion is the least that should be expected, that more is needed for it to be a success. For me, I’m right in the middle of that, they’ve done enough for this to not be a failure, they haven’t embarrassed themselves, even if they were to lose here, but not failing isn’t the same as succeeding. This is a legitimately tough game, no matter how they play, there’ll be no ‘yeah, but look at the opposition’ sneering if they get a result here, and getting to the semi finals would definitely be a success for me no matter what happens there (they’ll lose to Japan, shhhhh).
Can they get a result? Up to half time of the game against Switzerland, I’d have emphatically said no, it looked like they might have enough to get past the Swiss, but that was no certainty and coming up against a second tier team like England would be a step too far. Sure the defence was good, and certain individuals were having good tournaments, notably Kadeisha Buchanan and Erin Mcleod, but nothing was happening up front.
At half time I conversed on twitter about how they reminded me of the England men’s team of most of my adult life. Canada are traditionally an unsophisticated team relying on their physical attributes rather than skill, that had got them to a certain point, but there was an obvious realisation that to get beyond that point, they’d have to develop, catch up to the rest of the world playing a fancier style and leaving them behind. That transition, started under Carolina Morace, is obviously very much a work in progress, especially after losing one of the more skilled players in Diana Matheson (if she could play any part here, that’d be a big bonus, but it seems unlikely). Going back a few years now, Canada haven’t really looked comfortable or confident with this newer style and yet seem to have gone far enough away from the old style that they can’t play effectively like that any more either. That had very much continued through the group stage with hesitant performances, very few chances, and Christine Sinclair not in any way looking like she was going to remember how to elevate the team as she has done before. England was probably going to be where that team found their level and got knocked out.
That second half though was much better. They didn’t go all the way back to the straight up hoofing of the Evan Pelllerud era by any means, but there was all of a sudden an urgency and directness to their play. Play was going down the wing and balls were getting thrown into the box to see what might happen. What do you know, playing a style that suits Melissa Tancredi meant that for the first time in the tournament, Tancredi looked good, throwing her body around and causing problems, as well as holding the ball up well and putting in some crosses. Sinclair as well was all of a sudden a lot more involved at the business end of things, diving at and just missing a Tancredi cross, and fighting off two defenders to get the touch to set up Josée Belanger’s goal for example. On top of that very nice goal, Belanger looked good going forward, released from her previous right back role by the return of Rhiann Wilkinson. The balance was tipped far enough back towards the old traditional Canadian way of playing that they seemed familiar with it, as if they remembered who they are, finally confident in their ability to play this way and win. It wasn’t perfect of course, Lauren Sesselman continued her adventure at the back and Mcleod had to make a very big save, but the win was well earned.
Finally that looked like a team good enough to have a decent chance of beating England, and maybe put up a good fight before more than likely going down to a brave defeat when they finally meet a top tier team in the semis, maybe they could even sneak 3rd place, like 2012 all over again. Let’s hope they show up again on Saturday, win and their ‘Nation’s sweethearts, these girls are really good!’ status can continue unquestioned among those who don’t really pay that much attention. As unrealistic as that might be, it would be a good thing. Then John Herdman and co can go back to the hard work of trying to advance the technical side of the game, trying to make them a team good enough to keep up with the nations already ahead, and stay ahead of the countries developing behind them. That needs to happen no matter what we see in the next week or so.
As for England, they’ve been pretty much what I expected, similar to the Canadians really though with a harder path to get here. They were outclassed by France, looking afraid to even try and take them on, before unconvincingly beating Mexico and Colombia, then getting an impressive result against Norway, their first ever knockout stage win. 3 straight 2-1 wins, they don’t look all the good going forward and there’s no obvious star to carry them, but that’s a goalscoring record all Canadian fans can look at with envy and one of those games against a team in Norway that’s better than anyone Canada’s faced so far, this will be the toughest test yet for Buchanan and co at the back.
Take away the obvious Canadian interest and this looks like the dullest match of the round style wise, though one of the more evenly matched. I’ll predict an ugly kind of game, 2 decent defences cancelling out 2 almost decent attacks, and it will end 1-0 and this is a very good candidate to go to extra time. Difficult to say who will win, but patriotism demands I say Canada, so let’s go with that.
Back in that first paragraph I mentioned something about the reputation of the tournament as a whole, and so far I’d say it’s very much in line with the Canadian team. It’s been good enough to be considered not a failure. The Americans aside the turf hasn’t really been an issue and generally the crowds have been ok. Despite the expansion, the level of play has been alright and there’s been very few refereeing controversies. A good respectable tournament though it hasn’t really caught the attention of the nation as a whole has it? Not enough to be talked about as a great success. Now it will hopefully kick into a higher gear. Attendance in Montreal has been disappointing, but they’ve got possibly the game of the tournament ahead of them, followed by a semi final between the winner of France Germany and probably the US. A couple of good crowds there (and the Canada game showed there’s potential for that given the right game) and that disappointment will be forgotten. Canada will sell out BC Place again, and the US fans should have no trouble filling Lansdowne Stadium, and then the games just keep getting bigger so the average attendance mark should get a nice bump. The level of play and closeness of games should automatically improve from here on in to give the tournament a burnishing glow among those who focus on the games. As for capturing the imagination of Canada as a whole, well that’s going to come down to if Canada wins. If they go out here, broader interest would die off, the tournament not a failure but not a success. Get a semi final and then either a final or even a 3rd place game against the States and the interest would explode and much like the team, the tournament would be looked back at very fondly, very much a success.
No pressure Ladies.