We’ve now seen everyone once at the World Cup. We should be clear that one game does not a World Cup make, especially when 16 of the 24 teams will advance to the knockout round. You may or may not remember that the defending world champions Japan struggled in its opener four years ago, fortunate to escape with a 2-1 win over New Zealand. However, after they sneaked through the group stages, they played their best soccer when it mattered most.
However, unlike the men’s game, many of the teams coming to Canada were somewhat of a mystery, scouting reports gleaned from grainy highlights or past results against teams that were a long way from what they’ll face at the World Cup. Even countries like Spain, obviously a men’s superpower for the last decade, played its first women’s game outside the continent of Europe on Tuesday, which might explain a little of the nervousness in a disappointing 1-1 draw with Costa Rica.
While no one is eliminated (not even Ivory Coast and Ecuador, who lost 10-0 and 6-0, respectively) and there is plenty of soccer to be played, we at least have tangible evidence of what each team can and cannot do. Who should we have bought stock in before the tournament? Who should we have sold?
MOVING ON UP (in alphabetical order)
Cameroon – This is their first World Cup, but they’ve been on the rise for a while (they were in the last Olympics). Granted, three of their six goals were on penalties and Ecuador is dreadful, but they tripled the biggest margin of victory by an African team at the World Cup, and 23-year-old Gaelle Enganamouit looks like a rising star. That goal differential should put them through no matter what happens the rest of the group stage.
China – It remains to be seen how they will score, but they’ve proven they can defend and they have one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Wang Fei. If they can get a break or two against the Netherlands or New Zealand (see: actually score a couple of goals), they may be able to sneak into the knockout round and make life miserable for a favored team that will have all kinds of trouble breaking them down.
Colombia – They were obviously extremely fortunate to escape with a point against Mexico, but did you see the goal Daniela Montoya scored to equalize? It probably won’t be enough to let them advance (unless England feels like bunkering again), but it’s one more point than I thought they’d get at the World Cup (it was only the second non-Brazilian South American point at the World Cup ever, the other also by Colombia in 2011).
Costa Rica – One of the beneficiaries of the World Cup expansion, Costa Rica was supposed to take their beatings in Group E and smile, but they not only got a point, they got it against a European opponent (Spain). We had seen them much more organized on CONCACAF, but still it’s a surprise to see it carry over on the world stage. Young players like Raquel Rodriguez and Lixy Rodriguez give them a bright future (that might take them past Mexico in the region).
Germany – Yes, it was Ivory Coast, and we already knew they were title contenders, but the manner in which they eviscerated poor Ivory Coast was impressive (if Alexandra Popp could have finished, it might have ended 15-0), and without Dzsenifer Marozsan. There are still some concerns about Nadine Angerer’s form in goal, and even in a 10-goal defeat, Ivory Coast was dangerous on the counter, but that seems to be nitpicking at this point.
Nigeria – Perhaps the most impressive team in the first game, even if they didn’t get all 3 points. Asisat Oshoala is the real deal as the Super Falcons made Sweden – who has had more than its share of success on the world stage and was picked by some as a contender in Canada – look awful. They will have to figure out how to defend set pieces and hope Precious Dede can improve in goal, but they appear like they can play with anyone right now.
Switzerland – We knew Switzerland would be competitive and they didn’t even get a point against Japan, but they outplayed and outpossessed the defending world champs in the second half and probably deserved better. Much of the Swiss team plays in the Bundesliga, including both midfielders Vanessa Bernauer and Martina Moser, and we know what Ramona Bachmann is capable of when healthy, so Switzerland may be a tougher out than we thought.
Thailand – They got beat 4-0, but going in we were worried they might get embarrassed. That still might happen against Germany, but Kanjana Sung-Ngoen was dangerous and Thailand almost actually grabbed an early lead against Norway. They now have a real chance to advance if they can beat Ivory Coast.
Australia – It was an inspired first-half performance against the United States, but in the end, they still have zero points with Nigeria and Sweden waiting, and I still don’t know if I trust their back line at the moment.
Brazil – They won convincingly and will likely do so in their next two matches as well, but the real pressure will begin in the knockout stages, and there’s not a whole lot of experience to help out Marta when that begins. There is talent and athleticism, though.
France – They were called “disppointing” by many broadcasters, yet got 3 points in a game they conceded just three shots against a decent England team. It wasn’t terribly entertaining, but I see no reason to drop their stock when they should roll in their next two matches.
Netherlands – The front four of Vivianne Miedema, Manon Melis, goal-scorer Lieke Martens and Danielle van de Donk was electric in the first half against New Zealand, moving the ball and showing great skill. In the second half, they couldn’t keep the ball and they were physically dominated, which is going to make it tough against Canada and in the knockout stage.
New Zealand – Pretty much the opposite of the Dutch, they showed tremendous drive and ability to be physical, but they didn’t show much skill and didn’t get any points, either. They’ll battle, but they may need a set piece to score.
Norway – A 4-0 scoreline against Thailand is not going to scare anyone, although 19-year-old Ada Hederberg might. She was everywhere and seemed to go through just about anything in her path. Still, without Caroline Hansen, it’s unclear how far Norway can go.
South Korea – They looked so composed against the United States in a friendly, but Brazil just overwhelmed them for most of the game on Tuesday. Still, there were some good moments in the second half once Ji Soyun was able to get involved and like China, if they can manage a goal or two, they have a chance to advance.
United States – They may have played a poor first half by their standards, but they have three points and the inside track to win Group D, which should give them a relatively easy path in the knockout rounds to at least the semifinals. And Alex Morgan is just about back, too.
Canada – Their stock is down, but I think John Herdman has a plan, which includes easing into this tournament before unleashing his proverbial hounds in the knockout stages. It’s dangerous, but the three points in the opener cuts him a little slack, although with a banged-up Kadeisha Buchanan, neither the Netherlands nor New Zealand will prove an easy task.
Ecuador – We knew they might struggle, but where do you go after a 6-0 loss to Cameroon when your other two games are against Japan and Switzerland? They’re probably lucky they didn’t get drawn with the United States or Germany, but the goal differential may hover between minus-20 and minus-30 before all is said and done, unfortunately.
England – Given the situation, it was a bizarre game plan from Mark Sampson against France. Even if you think you’re outclassed, what message does it send to your team in the first game of a tournament to just sit back and watch them play? Even if they got beat 4-0 or 5-0, they should still beat Mexico and Colombia to advance in second. Now the confidence of the English team can’t be very high. Makes no sense to me.
Ivory Coast – I mean, if you lose 10-0, your stock is going to drop, and some of the defensive tactics were mind-boggling (and I don’t mean in a positive way). Playing a high line, holding people onside, not bothering to see runners anywhere on the field — it was awful. However, buried in that mess were some signs of life in the few times they got forward, and 3 points against Thailand could still be enough to see them advance. I expect them to get better.
Japan – As I said in the open, Japan looked poor in the 2011 World Cup opener, too, but Japan could not get out of its own end in the second half against Switzerland, which raises alarm bells going forward. As there has been in the U.S., there is some criticism of Norio Sasaki for leaving some good young players off the roster for this World Cup, and now they’ve lost Kozue Ando for the rest of the tournament with a fractured ankle. They should win the group easily, but after that?
Mexico – Again, they were hosed out of a winning goal, but if Mexico was truly on its 2011 World Cup level where they drew with New Zealand and England, it shouldn’t have come to that against a team as poor as Colombia. With England and France remaining, it’s hard to see them getting any more points.
Spain – They out-shot Costa Rica badly, but there wasn’t much speed and athleticism to scare a team like Brazil, and they’ll have to be careful against an organized South Korea squad. Again, it’s only one game, but Vero Boquete didn’t have a lot of help in the opener.
Sweden – They tend to play their best games against the United States, but Sweden has to be considered in real danger of an embarrassing exit here. If they don’t get a point against the U.S., they face Australia in a game they both may need to have to advance. And based upon the evidence of the first game, I’m not so sure Sweden is much of a favorite in that one.
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