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2016 Rio Olympics

UEFA sides all reach quarters, but questions linger

Silvia Neid's final major tournament as Germany coach has reached the knockout phase. (Photo: Canada Soccer)

Silvia Neid’s final major tournament as Germany coach has reached the knockout phase. (Photo: Canada Soccer)

While there was little doubt all three would progress, UEFA will be represented by all of its Olympic qualifiers after the first round group stage reached its conclusion. While Sweden, Germany and France will all contest the last eight this coming Friday, none were able to progress out of the groups unbeaten.

France

France were by far the most impressive, with the only blip being their 1-0 loss to London 2012 gold medalist USA. Some might argue that the French were deserving of at least a point, with Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd the decisive factor at either end of the field.

The final group game against New Zealand was as comfortable as the first when they faced Colombia. Again they dominated possession and created more chances, with Louisa Cadamuro deployed in a more central position than we have seen over the last few years. She thrived in that role, linking the play between the lines and chipping in with two goals, one a header running from deep into the box, which was exactly what French fans will have wanted to see.

It’s difficult to see weaknesses in this French side – they ooze class all over the park. However, they’ve now reached the business end of the competition, and as history suggests, this is where their mental strength comes into question. Quarterfinal defeats in 2015 and 2013 and semifinal defeats in 2011 and 2012 mean France has come closer, but has never actually reached a major final.

Arguably, with the wealth of talent they have and the balance between experienced heads and potential stars, now is the time to step up to the plate.

Canada will not be an easy quarterfinal, but the two met in 2012 and this will be a chance for the French to avenge that heart-breaking defeat, where they dominated throughout, but stumbled at the last hurdle.

Germany

The Germans limped through to the last eight stage after an unconvincing group campaign that saw them minutes away from defeat against Australia, and throw away a 1-0 lead against a Canada side who rested Christine Sinclair. In addition, the win against Zimbabwe came at a price, with Simone Laudehr ruled out of the competition after a late and cynical challenge that caused ankle ligament damage.

Silvia Neid’s last tournament as Head Coach is in danger of ending on a whimper. The defense looks shaky, with Australia’s lack of clinical finishing allowing the Germans to claw their way back into the game late on. Had the Matildas been slightly more composed in front of goal, they would have been out of sight and out of reach for the Germans.

The forward line hasn’t quite clicked yet despite experienced heads such as Anja Mittag and Alex Popp leading the line – but it’s not all bad. Melanie Behringer has been a standout in midfield and her free-kick against Zimbabwe is a contender for goal of the tournament. Dszenifer Marozsan has shown glimpses of her best, but the tournament is still waiting for her to really come into her own and show the world why she is a finalist for the UEFA Best Player in Europe Award.

The depth in the squad is without question, with Melanie Leupolz and Lena Goeßling coming off the bench against Canada – depth that could be key in the later rounds in the humid conditions.

China will prove a stern test. Technically, like a lot of Asian teams, they’re good with the ball, and their energy is something Germany will have to cope with after three tough group games. The key could well be Marozsan. Give her the space to unlock the China defense, and she’ll punish them with Mittag and Popp benefiting.

Sweden

Where to start with the Swedes? They haven’t been terrible, but they haven’t been good either. The side has crawled into the quarter-finals after performances in the first round that ranged from poor to mediocre – not a lot to get excited about.

The 5-1 drubbing by hosts Brazil was a wake-up call after the unconvincing win over South Africa in the opening game, but one thing we know is that Sweden have experience, and they’ll need it when they face USA.

In Pia Sundhage they have a Head Coach under pressure, but also one that isn’t naïve. With the score 0-0 against China, midfielder Caroline Seger is reported to have asked Sundhage whether the team should go for the win. “No” is the alleged reply, with Sundhage happy to finish third and not have to travel for the last eight encounter with the USA. The game against China was in Brasilia, and the game against the current Olympic Champions is in, yes you guessed it, Brasilia.

The two sides met in Winnipeg during the World Cup last year, and in truth it was a game few will remember, because it wasn’t one that sticks in the mind.

Behind Jill Ellis, nobody knows the USA setup better than Sundhage. She loves the challenge of playing against her former side, and it would certainly go down as one of her biggest coaching achievements if she can stop them winning a third gold medal in a row.

To do that, they’ll need to fight, they’ll need some luck, and they’ll need every player on the park to play to their maximum. If they don’t, it won’t be the semi-final they’re heading towards, it will be back home.

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