Can Japan Keep European Challenge at Bay in the Women’s World Cup?

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This has been a Women’s World Cup of shocks, with the United States of America, Germany, Canada and Brazil, all ranked in the top 10, exiting before the quarterfinal stage. Japan, the only Asian team to win the trophy, have been the tournament’s standout side till now, though the European teams have come to the fore by taking five of the eight places in the second knockout round. Colombia are bidding to become South America’s first World Cup winners, but the smart money will be on England, who are hoping to add the biggest prize to the European crown they won in 2022. Here, we look at the four quarterfinals, and where they’re likely to be won and lost.

Spain v The Netherlands, August 11, 6:30am IST

The big question surrounding this game is which Spain will turn up. Will be it the side that were so imperious in dismissing Switzerland 5-1 in the last 16, or the team that were torn apart 4-0 by a clinical Japan in their final group game? Jorge Vilda’s team will doubtless hog possession against the Dutch, but will be especially wary of how effective their opponents have been on the counterattack – three of the Netherlands’ goals have come from turnovers that they capitalised on. They may be missing the talismanic Vivianne Miedema – out with a cruciate ligament injury – and her goals (95 in 115 appearances), but having negotiated their way out of a group that had the USA, the defending champions, the Dutch won’t fear anyone.

Spain will hope they can call on Alexia Putellas, back after a serious injury of her own, but even if the world’s best player and Women’s Ballon d’Or winner in 2021 and 2022 doesn’t start, they have a plethora of attacking options. Aitana Bonmati was sensational against the Swiss, and the likes of Jenni Hermoso and Alba Redondo carry the promise of goals. Spain have never reached a semi-final, and this is their best chance to make history.

Prediction: Spain 3 Netherlands 1

Japan v Sweden, August 11, 1pm IST

Japan, World Cup winners in 2011 and finalists four years later, have scored 14 goals in their four matches so far. Hinata Miyazawa, one of a large group of home-based players, leads the way with five goals in the tournament, and their evisceration of Spain sent shockwaves through opposing sides. Saki Kumagai, their defensive lynchpin and leader, is now 32, and central to the transformation of a largely inexperienced side into title contenders. The Japanese attack with speed and precision, but will find Sweden, ranked No. 3 in the world, a tough nut to crack.

Like Japan, Sweden have conceded just once in the competition. But they will also know how lucky they were to get past the USA in the round of 16. The headlines may have been about Megan Rapinoe’s penalty miss, which even Donald Trump commented on, but the real story was the goalkeeping of Sweden’s Zecira Musovic. Not even a starter for Chelsea, she was a combination of brick wall and elastic while thwarting the Americans. Given how Japan have played till now, she can expect a similarly busy outing on Friday. Sweden’s best hope may well be to defend stoutly and hope that their physical edge can get them a set-piece goal or two.

Prediction: Japan 2 Sweden 0

France v Australia, August 12, 12:30pm IST

Like the Spain-Netherlands encounter, this has the potential to be a classic. After losing to Nigeria in their second group game, Australia were in danger of exiting their own party early. But they then thumped Canada, ranked No.7 in the world, 4-0 to book a spot in the last 16, and a 2-0 victory over Denmark ensured that the basic expectation of a quarterfinal place was met. Apart from Mary Fowler’s exquisite pass to Caitlin Foord for the first goal, the highlight was Sam Kerr’s appearance as a late substitute. Those were the Chelsea star’s first minutes of the competition, and it will be interesting to see if Australia find a way to fit their best striker into the XI.

You sense that Kerr’s goal-scoring prowess may be needed against a French side for whom Wendie Renard Is back to anchor the defence after falling out with Corinne Diacre, the former coach. Having fallen at this stage on the last three occasions, this is a great opportunity for the French to make global headlines for the right reasons. In late 2021, the French women’s team made the front pages of the world media after Aminata Diallo was arrested for masterminding an assault on Kheira Hamraoui, her Paris Saint Germain teammate. Neither woman is part of the World Cup squad. Instead, France can point to perhaps the feel-good story of the competition. When she injured her knee in 2016, there were doubts over whether Kenza Dali, now 32, could ever play again. She battled her way back into the squad after two years, and would likely have played the 2019 World Cup if not for dropping an iron on her toe and fracturing it. Now, in the playmaker’s role that Louisa Nécib performed with such distinction for over a decade, Dali – also of Algerian origin – could be the tournament’s sleeper hit.

Prediction: Australia 1 France 2

England v Colombia, August 12, 4pm IST

Just what do we make of England, the European Champions who have lost just one of their last 37 games? With Lauren James in dazzling form up front, they demolished China 6-1 to top a group that also included Denmark. But the same player was guilty of staggering immaturity in the round-of-16 clash against Nigeria, sent off for a stamp that rules her out of this game. What James’s stupidity did, however, was deflect attention from a pathetic England display. Nigeria hit the bar twice, kept England at bay, and were dreadfully unlucky not to progress.

Having said that, England have the players and the nous to manage games even when not playing well. Sarina Wiegman, their Dutch coach, is a superb tactician, and the depth of talent in the ranks is testament to the seriousness with which the leading English football clubs are now investing in their women’s squads.

Colombia will be awkward opponents, especially if Real Madrid’s Linda Caicedo is on top of her game. Mayra Ramirez and Catalina Usme are others to watch for, and England will be all too aware that Colombia have already beaten Germany – No. 2 in the world rankings – in this tournament. That said, Colombia have scored just five times in four matches, and an English defence organised by Millie Bright won’t be easy to breach.

The game could well be won in midfield, and the English duo of Keira Walsh and Georgia Stanway – both of whom play abroad, with Barcelona and Bayern Munich – should have the edge when it comes to creating chances and controlling the tempo. Colombia will get stuck in, but expect England to draw on a wealth of experience to get the job done.

Prediction: England 2 Colombia 0

Also Read: FIFA Women’s World Cup Scores Major Points Before It Begins

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