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|Marta returns, but can Brazil finally overcome its penchant for falling short in dramatic fashion? It's one of the key questions at the London Games.|
The international calendar for women's soccer is akin to quitting coffee cold turkey -- and then having a double shot of espresso. Two lean years in which little happens are followed by the FIFA Women's World Cup, which quickly gives way to the women's Olympic soccer tournament just a year later.
Given how the drama meter redlined in Germany last summer, fans -- at least for the moment - won't mind another jolt of excitement. Many of the faces that lit up the World Cup will be back once again, this time with an Olympic gold medal on the line. And as U.S. international forward Alex Morgan has proved, 12 months is more than enough time for last year's budding prospects to become bona fide stars. With that in mind, here are some other storylines to follow when the tournament commences on Wednesday.
1. Morgan's maturation makes the U.S. the favorites
Last year, Morgan was the U.S. team's designated super sub. But 2012 has seen her develop a devastating strike partnership with Abby Wambach, and with the two combining for 20 goals in 11 games so far this calendar year, the U.S. has looked almost unstoppable of late. That includes convincing wins over fourth-ranked Sweden as well as reigning World Cup champions Japan. The U.S. midfield also looks sharp, with Lauren Cheney taking on a more central attacking role, and Megan Rapinoe providing the unexpected out wide. There are some questions about the U.S. defense, especially with usual right back Ali Krieger sidelined with a torn ACL, but captain Christie Rampone remains the glue in the back, as does all-world goalkeeper Hope Solo. The U.S. will have plenty of competition, but given Morgan's form, not to mention the motivational boost from losing last year's World Cup final on penalties to Japan, the Americans are favorites to make it a three-peat of Olympic gold medals.
2. Japan looks to cement its place among the elite
Just how unexpected was Japan's run to the World Cup title? Just once had the Nadeshiko progressed beyond the group stage at a World Cup. The Olympics had been a bit kinder, as they finished fourth in 2008. Still, Japan's success, which included defeats of Germany and Sweden before triumphing over the U.S. on penalties in the final, shocked plenty. Can they do it again? The sense is that is asking too much of this Japan side, although many of the heroines from last summer will return, including midfielders Aya Miyama and reigning FIFA Ballon d'Or winner Homare Sawa. What isn't in doubt is that Japan will stick with its highly technical, possession-oriented style.
3. Beware of Les Bleus
Last summer's World Cup revealed that France is a team on the rise. Built around a core of players from UEFA Women's Champions League winners Olympique Lyon, France reached the semifinals in where, despite losing to the U.S. 3-1, it gave the Americans all they could handle. Since losing the third-place game to Germany, the team has won 17 consecutive matches. France looks especially potent in attack, where the likes of forward Marie-Laure Delie and midfielders Gaetane Thiney Louisa Necib can unlock any defense with their movement and creativity. France is solid defensively as well with holding midfielder Elise Bussaglia shielding the back four led by Wendie Renard. The U.S. will play France in its opening match, and this should reveal where the two teams stand.
4. Brazil tries to shed bridesmaid status -- again
There's no denying Brazil's talent. Five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta returns to lead the team's attack, ably abetted by the likes of Cristiane, Formiga and Rosana. But as always, the big question for the Samba Queens lies between the ears. Can they finally overcome their penchant for falling short, usually in dramatic fashion? That is the challenge for manager Jorge Barcellos, who returns to the side after leading Brazil to second-place finishes at the 2007 World Cup and the 2008 Olympics. In addition to instilling self-belief, a big challenge for Barcellos will revolve around the team's defense, which looked disorganized in a friendly against the U.S. earlier this year, but looked to be finding more cohesion as the Olympics approached.
5. Kelly Smith's comeback
When Smith broke her fibula in March, it looked like England's best-ever player would miss her chance to lead a unified Great Britain on home soil. But Smith's entire career has been about bucking the odds, overcoming alcoholism as well as a series of knee injuries to become England's leading scorer with 45 goals in 111 matches. And now it appears she has won her race to be fit in time for what could be the crowning moment of her illustrious career. Can Great Britain medal? Smith led England to the quarterfinals of last summer's World Cup, and with Team GB comprised mostly of the same group of players, a run to the semis isn't out of the question.6. What Group of Death?
Given that the group stage will eliminate only four of the 12 teams in the tournament, using the term "Group of Death" is a bit of a stretch. Still, Group F consisting of Japan, Sweden, Canada and South Africa is an impressive quartet. Japan and Sweden are the clear favorites to progress, while Canada will be looking to bounce back from a highly disappointing World Cup that saw them fail to record a single point. This Olympics marks the first time South Africa has qualified for a major tournament, and snagging any kind of a result in its three games will count as an accomplishment. Group G, with the U.S., France, North Korea and Colombia, is impressive as well with three teams ranked in the top eight in the world. Per usual, little is known about a North Korea squad that brings back less than half of the players who featured last summer at the World Cup, while Colombia will be hoping to build on the experience gained at the same tournament.
The temptation, then, is to think that Japan, Sweden and Canada, along with the U.S., France and North Korea will be among the teams to advance. But the relatively thin composition of Group E could see one of those six miss out on the knockout stages. While Brazil and Great Britain are favored to advance, either Cameroon or New Zealand could pick up the needed points to become one of the two third-place teams that will reach the quarterfinals.