Intriguing groups ooze potential upsets at Women’s World Cup

The first round will eliminate just eight of the 24 teams, with the top two finishers in each of the six groups advancing, along with the four best third-place teams.

Here’s a look at the contenders in the six groups:

Group A

France (world No 4), Norway (No 12), South Korea (No 14), Nigeria (No 38)

Host France starts as one of the tournament favorites, with the backbone of the starting XI playing for Lyon, the dominant team in European club soccer.

Sarah Bouhaddi is described by teammates as “the best goalkeeper in the world”, central defender Wendie Renard captains Lyon while defensive midfielder Amandine Henri captains France. Striker Eugenie Le Sommer has scored 74 goals for Les Bleues.

Further improving its chances is the absence of Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg, who is boycotting a Norway team that should still have enough to advance from the group.

South Korea took the fifth and last Asian World Cup berth in a playoff, but qualified without conceding a goal.

Nigeria, meanwhile, is the only African team to have ever made it as far as the quarterfinals, back in 1999, and coach Thomas Dennerby has set the last eight as a target.

“I hope we can get to the quarterfinals and from there anything can happen,” the Swede said.

Key match: France vs Norway. The noveau riche French face one of the women’s game’s old aristocrats.

Group B

Germany (world No 2), Spain (No 13), China (No 16), South Africa (No 49)

Second-ranked Germany is unbeaten since losing to France in last year’s SheBelieves Cup. It will be tough to beat and coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg is aware of what a good chance this is for her team.

“I am convinced that, with this team, we are well set for a strong run at the World Cup,” said the confident coach.

Barcelona might have been thrashed by Lyon in the Champions League final, but it was the first Spanish club to get that far and its improvement coincides with Spain’s rise in the FIFA rankings. Moreover, it does not have a single player over the age of 29.

Despite a recent resurgence, China has slipped back from 1999, when Sun Wen led the Steel Roses to the final with 10 goals and was named the tournament’s most valuable player.

“We know there’s still a gap between us and the world’s elite, but we’ve been working hard to close that gap,” said China’s head coach Jia Xiuquan.

“I want my players first to dream big and then go all out to achieve the highest goal possible,” he added.

South Africa is a distant outsider.

Key match: China vs Spain. Likely to be the battle for second behind Germany.

Group C

Australia (world No 6), Brazil (No 10), Italy (No 15), Jamaica (No 53)

The Aussies have strength in depth. If attacker Mary Fowler appears in the opening match she will do so at the age of 16 years and 155 days. That would make her far younger than the men’s finals record holder, Norman Whiteside, who was 17 years and 41 days when he played for Northern Ireland against Yugoslavia in 1982.

Fowler would only be the fourth youngest women to play at the World Cup.

On the Brazilian squad, two 5-foot-4 veterans should garner the most notice. At 33, six-time world player of the year Marta is trying to improve on her collection of runners-up medals from the 2007 World Cup and the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, while Formiga is back for a seventh World Cup at age 41.

If the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder plays she will break the record set by Christie Rampone of the US, who was 40 years and 11 days old when she made her last appearance in the 2015 final.

FIFA calculated that 150 of the players at this World Cup were not even born when Formiga made her competition debut in 1995.

Italy, with all but one of its squad playing at home, has found cohesion since coach Milena Bertolini took over in 2017, but is a dark horse to win the competition.

For Jamaica, supported spiritually and financially by Bob Marley’s family, just reaching the World Cup is a victory. The strike rate of 22-year-old Khadija Shaw, who scored 29 goals in her first 21 internationals, gives the Reggae Girlz hope of landing a big punch.

Key match: Italy vs Brazil: Brazil’s veterans take on the less experienced Italians, most likely with second place on the line.

Group D

England (world No 3), Argentina (No 37), Scotland (No 20), Japan (No 7)

England was a semifinalist in Canada four years ago and at the Euros in 2017. That tournament was followed by the removal of coach Mark Sampson for “inappropriate and unacceptable” conduct but his successor, Phil Neville has maintained the momentum.

Despite winning 59 caps for England, former Manchester United defender Neville never played in a World Cup but he is confident his squad can do well and exploit the goodwill at home.

“We have nothing to fear,” Neville said. “The crowd and media are behind us, we are going into a major tournament as the best-prepared team.”

Japan followed an unexpected victory in 2011 with Olympic silver in 2014 and a runner-up spot in the 2015 World Cup when it eliminated England in the semis.

A golden generation may have been replaced by a host of players promoted from the under-23s with an eye on the Tokyo Olympic tournament next year, but past results suggest the Japanese are over-achievers.

The Scots have qualified for the first time.

Key match: England vs Scotland. England may want revenge against Japan but Scotland is its oldest footballing enemy and the match on the Riviera is guaranteed a big TV audience in the UK.

Group E

Canada (world No 5), New Zealand (No 19), Cameroon (No 46), Netherlands (No 8)

Canada has been to the past six World Cups without ever making the last four.

Christine Sinclair has 282 caps, more than the entire Jamaican squad. She also has 181 international goals, second only to former US star Abby Wambach, and the 35-year-old Sinclair is Canada’s penalty taker.

Cameroon is another team looking to a 35-year-old scorer, Madeleine Ngono, who fired the goal that earned it a place in the second round on its debut in 2015.

The Dutch also made their debut in 2015 and reached the last 16. In 2017, the Dutch won the Euros. Star striker Vivianne Miedema was named this season’s players’ player of the year in England after leading Arsenal to the league title.

New Zealand has played in the past four World Cups without winning a game, but the Ferns are in the world’s top 20 and should be eyeing a second-round spot.

Key match: Netherlands vs Canada. An early test for two teams who look like title dark horses.

Group F

United States (world No 1), Sweden (No 9), Thailand (No 34), Chile (No 39)

For the US anything other than victory is a failure.

“When you step into a team that was ranked No 1 in the world you realize there is zero margin for error,” coach Jill Ellis said when she unveiled her squad.

Ellis said victory is all that matters “and if we win in the 80th minute, I’m good with that”.

The US is the only team to be able to draw all its players from its domestic league and its strength in depth is terrifying.

This is the fifth straight World Cup that Sweden has been drawn in the same group as the US. The Swedes eliminated the Americans on penalties in the quarterfinals at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

In its World Cup debut four years ago, Thailand lost heavily twice but beat Cote d’Ivoire. One victory here could see it into the second round.

Chile’s woman to watch – though you will have to look hard – is 4-foot-10 forward Javiera Grez, the shortest player in the tournament.

Key match: USA vs Sweden. In what looks like a comfortable group this match has an edge of revenge for the Americans over the loss in Rio.


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