Being called a “coward” is not quite the same as being dubbed a “chicken”, but even if Brazil spends the hours between now and Tuesday’s Olympic semifinal clucking outside their hotel, I don’t think Pia Sundhage and Sweden will change their tactics that pulled off the fairly monumental upset of the United States in the quarterfinals Friday.
Even Hope Solo realizes by now that her comments were almost completely inaccurate. Sweden played the game it felt it needed to against the reigning world champions (and three-time defending Olympic champions) and it’s really, really hard to argue with the final results, as frustrating as they are for the vanquished. Sundhage is obviously not the first one in soccer history to put 10 players behind the ball, concede possession and look to counterattack. They also aren’t the first one to do it successfully, even this summer. Iceland – deservedly so – became the darlings of the soccer world by doing a lot of it in the European championships, and they were hailed almost exclusively, with no one calling them “cowards.” Well, almost no one.
Yes, the Sweden women are not the Iceland men, complete with a proud tradition that dates back all the way to 1973 (which might as well be B.C. in women’s soccer history), and have gotten plenty of results in their history without such tactics. But the last time Sweden was in a knockout game it was destroyed by Germany 4-1 and were throttled worse by Brazil 5-1 just last week in game where the scoreline could have been much worse.
Sundhage also pretty much telegraphed what the approach she was going to take to the game against the U.S., so it wasn’t some shock. And she’ll do it again on Wednesday, with the previous paragraph giving you plenty enough cause to do so.
Will it work again? It just might, you know.
BRAZIL vs. SWEDEN, Noon EDT (NBCSN)
Brazil looks even more susceptible to a counterattacking team than the U.S. did, and probably won’t have their best goal scorer in Cristiane again with a hamstring injury (a huge loss that wasn’t talked about much in Brazil’s game with Australia). Vadao adjusted by putting Marta in her place as lone striker and she was excellent, running at the Matilda defense at every opportunity, but didn’t quite have the support to get the job done in the end.
The two central midfielders Brazil has employed – Debinha and Beatriz – are both very talented players, but will be in a tough spot. They want to help break Sweden down and will likely be needed to do so, but don’t want to leave the center open for a counter. Formiga, at 38, has been excellent at these Olympics, but also does not want to abandon the middle. Sweden handled the U.S. set pieces very well and will have to do the same on Wednesday.
So what is Brazil to do? Well, score, of course. Easier said than done, but that’s how they routed Sweden in the group stage game last week, getting two relatively early and forcing the Swedes to come out and play. It’s tough to see a scenario where Sweden can come back from a couple of goals down. Without Cristiane, though, getting that lead may prove difficult and with every minute that passes, the expected 65,000 in Rio will get more and more tense.
BEST PRIOR OLYMPIC FINISH:
Brazil – Silver (2004, 2008)
Sweden – 4th place (2004, assured at least 4th in 2016)
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Brazil: Debinha – Other than Marta and Cristiane, Debinha has seemed the most likely to break down defenses. At 24, she’s relatively inexperienced (although this will likely be her 50th cap) and there will be plenty of pressure on her in front of basically her entire country. But that may be the inspiration some people need to break through.
Sweden: Stina Blackstenius – Like Debinha, Blackstenius has been thrown into the fire a bit due to injury (this one to Fridolino Rolfo, who has been ruled out of the rest of the Olympics), but she obviously showed the ability against the U.S., and also had plenty of energy, all the way through extra time. That energy will be key as she is forced to likely chase a lot and wait for a Brazilian mistake.
UNDER THE RADAR:
Brazil: Formiga – It’s game five of a tournament that features a lot of travel and not much rest time. Formiga has not shown any signs of slowing down yet in this tournament, but might this be the time that things catch up to her? She’ll play a key role (as she has for most of the last two decades) in what Brazil does.
Sweden: Elin Rubensson – She hopes it doesn’t happen too often, but she might be the one staring at Marta running at her with the ball Tuesday. She’ll obviously need some help, but with the attacking talent (Andressa Alves, Thaisa) Brazil has to offer, their defenders will have to do a solid job in 1v1 situations, as they did for the most part against the United States.
Brazil: Home cooking – It will be the atmosphere that Brazilian (and South American) women’s soccer has been waiting for, well, forever. A sellout crowd should await and it should be awesome for women’s soccer. But will it raise the nerves of the Brazilian players a little too much?
Brazil does seem pretty ripe for a disciplined team willing to sit in and wait for their chances. However, it is not an easy style to win with consistently and pulling it off two matches in a row might be a bit too difficult to pull off.