Previewing the WWC quarterfinals
WOLFSBURG, Germany -- When the Women's World Cup commenced June 26, conventional wisdom had it that only three countries had a real shot at claiming the title: Germany, Brazil and the United States. And while there is still a good chance that one of those three will come out on top, the tournament has proved to be a bit more open than anticipated.
Sweden and England caused mild surprises in winning their respective groups, while France qualified for the knockout stages for the first time. Japan recalled past glories by reaching the quarterfinals for the first time since 1995, and Australia cemented its status among the upper echelon of the game by progressing out of the group stage for the second World Cup in a row.
The news gets even better for some of these up-and-comers. With the U.S. and Brazil set to square off in the quarterfinals, the door opens for one of these two outsiders to reach the semifinals. And while that massive encounter will occupy the thoughts of U.S. fans everywhere, here's how the other quarterfinal pairings shape up:
Germany vs. Japan
When Japan dropped its group finale against England, it did worse than just miss out on claiming the top spot in Group B. It condemned itself to a quarterfinal matchup with host Germany.
This isn't to say that Japan doesn't have some talented players. With the likes of Homare Sawa and Aya Miyama orchestrating the attack from midfield, the Nadeshiko have the skill to threaten any team in the world with their possession-oriented approach. But this is the worst kind of matchup for Japan in that Germany's strengths are perfectly aligned to exploit Japan's weaknesses. Japan has long struggled to cope with big, strong and fast opponents that can outmuscle its midfield and impose its will in both boxes. It was true in two warmup losses to the U.S. and was reinforced against England, against which Japan struggled to cope with the physicality of striker Ellen White and couldn't find a way past the Three Lionesses' defense.
Germany poses a similar threat. Players like Kersten Garafrekes and Inka Grings are dominant in the air, while Celia Okoyino Da Mbabi provides speed up top. In defense, the likes of Saskia Bartusiak and Annike Krahn deliver composure and strength. The poor form of Birgit Prinz has turned into something of a soap opera in Germany, and her absence from the lineup against France after 157 straight starts was a bit of a surprise, but such is Germany's depth that it clearly didn't miss her in claiming a 4-2 win.
At present, a bigger worry for Germany is defending set pieces. France scored off two corner kicks, and Japan's Miyama and Sawa are adept at delivering dangerous passes from dead-ball situations. The question is, Does Japan have the height to take advantage? Granted, as Sawa showed in scoring from two headers against Mexico, timing and anticipation can play as big a part as height does on successful set pieces. But it stands to reason that Germany manager Sylvia Neid will shore up that part of her side's game. Japan has never beaten European opposition at the World Cup in nine tries, and that doesn't figure to change Saturday.
England vs. France
Take one look at these two teams and it would appear that England is riding a wave of momentum while France has encountered a few speed bumps. But closer inspection reveals that there is less separating the two than one might think. Without question, England has gotten better with every game. Its early stumble against Mexico that resulted in a 1-1 tie has since been erased by a comeback win against New Zealand and a thoroughly professional 2-0 win over Japan to claim the top spot in Group B.
But if there is one nagging doubt about England's game, it's the state of attacking midfielder Kelly Smith. Through three games, she has rarely been impactful, often dropping very deep to get the ball, while also being guilty of losing possession far more often than normal. Against Japan, Smith was pulled after 62 ineffectual minutes and her body language revealed a player far from satisfied with her performance.
To England's credit, other players have stepped up to fill such an unexpected void. White, Jess Clarke and Rachel Yankey have supplied the critical goals, while Jill Scott's two-way displays have helped stabilize the Three Lionesses' midfield.
Yet the fact remains that more of France's attacking pieces appear to be operating at their peak, despite finishing off the group stage with a 4-2 loss to Germany after wins against Nigeria and Canada. Striker Marie-Laure Delie has the speed and aerial ability to help seize a game's momentum, while wide midfielders Camile Abily and Gaetane Thiney can make game-altering plays as well. More critically, attacking midfielder Louisa Necib is playing with an incisiveness that Smith is lacking at the moment.
France will have to cope with the loss of goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz, who is suspended because of the red card she incurred against Germany. This will result in Celine Deville getting her first start of the tournament. The loss to the tournament hosts also revealed a frailty on set pieces, although such is the Germans' prowess in the air that it's difficult to determine just how vulnerable France is in this area.
Certainly, Smith's deliveries from dead-ball situations remain a strength, and perhaps it is from this area of her play that she'll finally get on track. One way or another, she'll need to raise her game for England to progress. Otherwise, France will be the one heading to the semifinals.
Sweden vs. Australia
Sweden essentially pounded its Group C opponents into submission, taking out the U.S. in its final match to claim the top spot. As for its quarterfinal opponent, well, Australia's journey through Group D bore a closer resemblance to a roller-coaster ride. Matildas coach Tom Sermanni can usually be counted on to fashion a side that is dynamic in attack and organized in defense. But no amount of top level coaching can account for individual errors, and Australia's defense was riddled with them, even in victories over Equatorial Guinea and Norway. When center back Servet Uzunlar wasn't gifting goals to the opposition, goalkeeper Melissa Barbieri would take over, as evidenced in the last group -stage game against Norway when her blunder nearly sent Australia tumbling out of the tournament.
Yet the Matildas, as is their habit, survived in no small part because of the industry and creativity of Lisa De Vanna, as well as the finishing ability of 20-year-old striker Kyah Simon. So if Australia can manage to eliminate the individual defensive errors, it could manage to spring a surprise against the Swedes.
Don't count on it, though. Almost lost in the euphoria of Sweden's win over the U.S. was the fact that it competed without midfield linchpin Caroline Seger. With its captain back in the lineup, the front line of Lotta Schelin and Josefine Oqvist (or perhaps Jessica Landstrom) will use their height and speed to test Australia's suspect defense. Sweden also has the kind of midfield that is adept at imposing its physical strength on opponents, especially through central midfielders Seger and Lisa Dahlkvist, as well as Therese Sjogran out on the left wing.
As for Sweden's defense, it conceded only one goal in group play, and while the Swedes did look wobbly in the later stages against the U.S., they've been largely resolute. Given the wide disparity in performance between the two backlines, Sweden should carry the day and move into the semifinals.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.