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Women’s World Cup: Ranking the final eight

By Paul Kennedy, @pkedit

The Women’s World Cup moves into the quarterfinals with two games on Friday and two more Saturday.

While the USA struggled to put away longshot Colombia, France and Germany put on masterful displays in the round of 16, setting up what would be the game of the tournament Friday afternoon in Montreal. Meanwhile, defending champion Japan produced the goal of the tournament on Tuesday night.

The USA is only fourth in our ranking of the eight quarterfinalists, but it has enough going for it that it could still turn things around and regain the world title that has eluded it since 1999.

1. FRANCE.

The most impressive thing about the Bleues in their last two games is they applied early knockout blows to both Mexico (the first goal after 35 seconds, three goals in the first 13 minutes) and South Korea (two goals in the first eight minutes), reminiscent of the 2-0 win over Germany last October in Offenbach (both goals came in the first 20 minutes). The 5-0 and 3-0 wins make you wonder how on earth France could have lost to Colombia.

A couple of things should be noted. It isn’t like the Bleues played terribly. They outshot Colombia, 21-3, but came up against a hot keeper in Sandra Sepulveda. Also, French coach Philippe Bergeroo rotated his lineup, resting holding midfielder Amandine Henry and right winger Elodie Thomis, arguably the two best players at their positions at the Women’s World Cup.

The one change since the start of the tournament was to put forward Marie Laure Delie back in the starting lineup. She had the opening goal against Mexico and added two more against South Korea to give her 61 goals in 89 appearances. Delie’s return has allowed Eugenie Le Sommer to play more of a free-lance role up front, where she is so dangerous. All this has reduced star Louisa Necib to being a role player, operating mostly from the left wing, but don’t underestimate her importance. Her abilities on the ball are a big reason the French often operate at will in the opposition third.

2. GERMANY.

Scary thought: However good the Germans are — they’ve scored more than twice as many goals as any other team left in the tournament — they’re not even close to full strength. Nadine Kessler, the 2014 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year, and Luisa Wensing are out with injuries, and Fatmire Alushi is skipping the Women’s World Cup because she is pregnant. But the Germans are still so loaded in midfield that Coach Silvia Neid can afford using Dzsenifer Marozsan off the bench like she did in the 4-1 win over Sweden in the round of 16.

Germany benefits from the best club program in Europe. Wolfsburg and FFC Frankfurt have won the last three UEFA Women’s Champions League trophies, and they aren’t even German champions. Bayern Munich won the Frauen-Bundesliga title for the first time in 39 years in 2015 and contributes two key players to the German lineup: 22-year-old Leonie Maier, the best right back at the World Cup, and 21-year-old Melanie Leupolz in central midfield.

Like France, Germany loves to attack out of the back with youngsters Tabea Kemme, only 23, and Maier and down the wings with Simone Laudehr, the best player against Sweden, and Alexandra Popp. With that kind of support, it’s easy see why some are wondering why Celia Sasic and Anja Mittag, the leading scorers at the World Cup, have only five goals apiece.

3. JAPAN.

Quietly and efficiently, the defending champions have moved into the quarterfinals with four straight wins, all by one goal: 1-0, 2-1, 1-0 and 2-1.

But those scorelines don’t tell the whole story about the Japanese, who produced the goal of the tournament Tuesday night against the Netherlands: ball played into the area by young substitute Mana Iwabuchi to Yuki Ogimi, backheel from Ogimi to Aya Miyama, dummy run from Iwabuchi and pass from Miyama to Mizuho Sakaguchi, who scored with a curling left-footed shot.

Earlier in the year, Coach Norio Sasaki said he thought his current team might be stronger than the team that won the 2011 Women’s World Cup and took the silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, and he might be right. Japan is loaded with experience — Sasaki started seven starters from the 2011 final against the USA  on Tuesday night — but it is still relatively young. Miyama is the oldest starter at age 30.

4. USA.

As bad as the USA has looked at times, it is still in relatively good shape. It has the best goalkeeper in the world in Hope Solo and the best backline in the tournament. Alex Morgan now has two starts under her belt and played like the game-changer she is against Colombia, winning the first penalty and scoring the winning goal.

The USA is the most battle-tested team in the tournament, having survived the Group of Death. It has the easiest quarterfinal match, going up against China on Friday in Ottawa. And either France or Germany, the top two teams in the tournament, will have been knocked out by the time the USA moves into the semifinals, if it advances.

So why worry? No one gave Colombia a chance on Monday night, and it outplayed the Americans for a good part of the game in the worst of four so-so performances. The U.S. women don’t look like they’re having fun, and it is showing.

5. AUSTRALIA.

Question marks about the USA first surfaced when the Matildas created chance after chance in the first half of the tournament opener in Winnipeg. Australia eventually wilted in the second half, but you have to give the Matildas credit. They quickly put their 3-1 defeat to the USA behind them and beat Nigeria, 2-0, in a convincing performance.

The 1-0 win over Brazil in the round of 16 was no fluke and sets up a rematch of the 2014 Asian Cup final against Japan on Saturday. Sasaki, for one, has been impressed with the Matildas. “Australia is a completely different team this time, they have improved quite a lot,” he said after Tuesday’s win over the Netherlands. “They are technically better. I must say Australia has great potential right now and we need to be aware of that.”

Indeed, the Matildas have the best young team in the tournament. While veteran captain Linda De Vanna has been outstanding, Australia has also received big contributions from defenders Elise Kellond-Knight, 24,  Stephanie Catley, 21, and Alanna Kennedy, 20, midfielders Katrina Gorry, 22, and Emily van Egmond, 21, and attackers Kyah Simon, 23, Samantha Kerr, 21, and Caitlin Foord, 20, most of whom gained valuable experience playing in the NWSL.

6. CANADA.

John Herdman, Canada’s head coach, is also Canada’s No. 1 cheerleader. With two games still ahead of them — against England Saturday and a match against the Japan-Australia winner in Edmonton next Wednesday if they advance — Herdman describes the hosts as being within “touching distance” of the final.

Herdman’s optimism belies the struggle it has been for Canada, which like the USA has battled nerves and failed to convince in front of the huge crowds that have turned out in Edmonton, Vancouver and Montreal.

Even more than the USA, Canada has struggled to create chances. Herdman moved defender Josee Belanger to the frontline against Switzerland, and she scored the game’s lone goal, just the third  goal for Canada in four matches. Of the remaining quarterfinalists, only Australia has attempted fewer shots than Canada, though it will point to some bad luck for its low scoring total. It has hit the woodwork four times, more than any team in the tournament.

7. ENGLAND.

England made history when it rallied to beat Norway, 2-1, on Monday for its first win in four attempts in the knockout stage of the World Cup, and it’s ready for more when it faces Canada in Vancouver on Saturday.

“We’ll probably be underdogs, but we’ve already shown in this tournament we can play under pressure,” said England captain Steph Houghton, who scored the tying goal against Norway. “That’s what we did against Norway. We knew we could make history and we’ve done it. Now we can do it again on Saturday.”

Much of the credit for England’s success goes to head coach Mark Sampson, who was brought in to replace Hope Powell after a disastrous Euro 2013 campaign. After a poor outing against France in its opener, England has reeled off three straight 2-1 wins to reach the quarterfinals. The gulf between the English and the top four or five teams left in the tournament is huge, but Canada is a team they match up well against.

8. CHINA.

China is the lone quarterfinalist that wasn’t at the Women’s World Cup four years ago but it is no stranger to the late stages of the tournament. It reached the quarterfinals of the first five Women’s World Cups and was fourth in 1995 and second in 1999.

But at 65-1, China is the longshot of eight surviving teams and given little chance against the USA. Its offense is almost nonexistent — just four goals in four games — but it has an excellent keeper in keeper Wang Fei, who plays in Germany, and it defends well with six or seven players almost always behind the ball.

“I think they have one of the best defenses in this tournament,” Cameroon coach Enow Ngachu said after the 1-0 loss to China in Edmonton in the round of 16. “Looking at the way they play, they have chances.”

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