After the United States comfortably defeated Chile in their penultimate Group F encounter, the New York Times ran a story with the social media headline: “The best team in the world. And the second best.”
Beyond the usual American arrogance, the headline indicated the incredible strength in depth that the USWNT bring to France.
They began the tournament with a humiliating rout of Thailand, and ended it with an assured performance against Swedish – their toughest opponents in an otherwise easy group.
A round of 16 clash with Spain now awaits, before a likely quarter-final match-up with hosts France.
Can anyone stop the mighty Americans?
France – Quarter-Finals
With adoring local crowds behind them, Les Bleues are expected to do well at the World Cup. But to improve on their quarter-final exit at the 2015 edition, they will need to beat the United States in Paris next Friday (provided both teams win their round of 16 encounters).
The French began the tournament in style, putting four past an underwhelming South Korea side. They then overcame Norway, a much tougher test, with a 2-1- victory in Nice. But their performance against Nigeria in the final Group A clash was disappointing, with France only winning courtesy of Wendie Renard’s controversial penalty retake.
The French will have a packed Parc des Princes cheering them on in the probable quarter-final match-up, and benefit immensely from having a spine of Lyon players – the club side have won four consecutive Champions League trophies. But home support could be a double-edged sword. The pressure is on this talented France team, and they have buckled in the past.
If France beat the United States and go on to win the tournament, they will be the first nation in history to simultaneously hold the women’s and men’s World Cups. This quarter-final could well determine who triumphs in the final in Lyon just over a week later.
Australia – Semi-Finals
The Matildas have had a mixed group stage, finishing second due to an opening loss to Italy. They were on the brink of catastrophe against Brazil, two-nil down with half-time looming – and it looked as if the pre-tournament hype was unjustified.
But a thrilling comeback against the Brazilians followed by a comfortable victory over Jamaica have propelled the Aussies into the round of 16, where they face Norway on Saturday. If they beat the Grasshoppers, and then overcome likely quarter-final opponents England, a clash with the Americans may await in Lyon.
Several factors give the Matildas a chance of toppling Team USA. A large number of the Australian squad have played or do play in the United States, providing them significant familiarity with their opponents. The Aussies also boast, in Sam Kerr, possibly the best striker in the world. In a cagey big-stage match such as a World Cup semi-final, the moments of brilliance that Kerr is capable of could make the difference.
The teams played in a friendly in March, and while the Americans downed Australia 5-3, the match demonstrated that the Matildas have the ability to go toe-to-toe with the reigning world champions.
Germany – Final
That’s the best way – if admittedly clichéd – to describe Germany’s progression through Group B.
Coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg began the tournament by guiding her charges past China in a tightly-contested 1-0 encounter. The Germans repeated that scoreline against Spain in Valenciennes several days later, before unleashing against South Africa – 4-0 – to conclude the group with nine points, six goals scored and zero conceded.
If Germany reach the final – to do so they will likely need to overcome heavyweights the Netherlands at one point or another – this defensive solidity could be key to overcoming the United States. Goalkeeper Almuth Schult has looked assured, while the midfield base has provided a solid platform for their attacking-minded colleagues to build – although an injury to star playmaker Dzsenifer Marozsán has hurt.
Having already claimed the crown for best pre-tournament video – “We don’t have balls, but we know how to use them” – the Germans will be looking that same sass to a final match-up with the Americans. A meeting between the two would be a clash of the titans: defending world champions against reigning Olympic champions.
The Germans are perhaps better equipped than any other team in France to stop the USWNT.
But it is testament to the strength of the American women that, in such an encounter, they would remain significant favourites.
French ace Renard may be two goals off joint golden boot leaders Alex Morgan and Sam Kerr, but if the home team go all the way they will be reliant on Renard’s goals. Golden boot odds of 20/1 therefore look tempting.
On the other hand, while Brazil have underwhelmed, they remain a team packed with quality – including veterans Formiga and Marta. It would be a surprise if they beat France in the round of 16 on Thursday, but the Brazilians have gone deep in this tournament before. A Brazil win is 13/2.