June 29, 2011

World Cup: Day 5

Canada vs. France (12 pm eastern)

As we head into the second match in group stage play, there is likely none that will be bigger than this one. The sixth and seventh ranked teams in the world, Canada and France, will probably be battling for one position into the quarterfinals.

A win for either team would put them in the driver's seat for the second quarterfinal berth out of Group A. In fact, a victory by the French combined with a German tie or win would clinch a quarterfinal berth for them. And a tie would not necessarily be a bad result for Canada.

France surely must have thought that they would have a bigger advantage in goal differential after the first match. But they only managed a one goal decision over Nigeria while the Canadians were able to play the mighty Germans close. It increases the urgency of needing to come away from this match with a victory for the French.

A late goal by Christine Sinclair against Germany kept the Canadians close and she was expected to lead Canada against France on Thursday. But will she be able to? Sinclair's nose was broken by an elbow in Sunday's match against Germany and she hasn't been cleared to play as of last word. If the Canadians have to go into this all important match against France without her, it is hard to see them coming away with a victory.

Certainly, concern has to be the word of the day for the Canadians. Sinclair rarely misses an important match, in fact, she rarely ever comes out for substitution.

As for the French, they will have to make good on scoring opportunities that all too often slipped away from them in their first match against Nigeria. The heroes for that day were Louisa Necib, who had an incredible work rate in that match, Eugenie Le Sommer, who came on as a 2nd half substitution to spark France, and of course, Marie-Laure Delie, who scored the winning goal.

One would expect we would see more out of midfielder Camille Abily on Thursday. Abily never truly has a bad game, but we have seen better from her than in the match against Nigeria. It would not surprise me if she played a central role in Thursday's match against the Canadians.

The all important goalkeeper matchup should be interesting. Carolina Morace often switches goalkeepers in tournaments, but with Erin McLeod only giving up two against Germany, we may see her again. There should know doubt that Berangere Sapowicz will be in goal for France.

Defensively, the Canadians played well against Germany and it was just a couple of mistakes that cost them dearly in that match. The French earned a shutout in their first match, but Sinclair, if she plays, should pose a bigger problem. France has injury worries of their own, as Wendie Renard came off limping badly in Sunday's match and her status is unknown for Thursday's match.

The midfield battle should favor the French, but the Canadians are solid there as well. Little Diana Matheson played well in her first match and her distribution may be a key in Canada's offense. Meanwhile, magicJack midfielder Sophie Schmidt is likely to play an important role in defending against France, but the Canadians will likely have their hands full with Sandrine Soubeyrand, Abily, and Necib.

If Sinclair can't go, the burden will shift to Canada's young forwards like Jonelle Filigno and Christina Julien. Meanwhile, the team of Gaetane Thiney and Delie seemed to work well for the French against Nigeria.

Neither team shies away from physical play and it is likely that it will play a part in Thursday's match as well. Canada and France should make for compelling drama on Thursday with the winner as the odds on favorite for the quarterfinals.

My Prediction: If Sinclair plays, Canada 1, France 1. If not, France 1, Canada 0.

Germany vs. Nigeria (2:45 pm eastern)

Winning in front of huge home crowd of over 73,000 fans had to be a big thrill for the Germans. The only thing keeping it from being a perfect day was Christine Sinclair's goal late in the contest. Now they will face a predominantly young Nigerian squad in their second match. Germany will be heavy favorites and they defeated Nigeria as recently as last fall by an 8-0 margin.

What happens in the first match might have some effect on this one. If France defeats Canada, there would not be as much urgency for Germany to win this match. Sure, they want to win Group A, but they would have the peace of mind that they were in good shape heading into their third match against France. They might be able to even make earlier substitutions to give a few of their players the extra rest, if the game is in hand.

If Canada wins, however, it puts a different light on this match. Germany would have to worry about the possibility of a three-way tie atop Group A if they should lose to France in the final group stage match, bringing goal differential into the picture. If Canada wins, one can bet that Germany will be pressing to score as many as possible against Nigeria.

It must be quite a luxury to bring in the likes of Inka Grings and Alexandra Popp as substitutes. No other team in this tournament has that much firepower on the bench. That's just how deep Germany is on the attacking end. Grings certainly has to be chomping at the bit after not getting the start in Sunday's match. It will be interesting to see if Silvia Neid tries to rest Birgit Prinz late in the match.

Germany is so talented, so physical, and so superior in their midfield, it is hard to see the Nigerians winning the possession battle. Garefrekes, Okoyino da Mbabi, Behringer, Kulig, and Laudehr are strong and will not give an inch to the speedy team from Nigeria. And once again, the depth is astounding with Fatmire Bajramaj coming off the bench in the first match. That will make it hard for Rita Chikwelu and Perpetua Nkwocha to find room to operate.

Nigeria will have to find a way to string together passes and hope to use their speed with Desire Oparanozie, Ebere Orji, and crafty Stella Mbachu in the attack. Oparanzozie might be the most dangerous of these options, but she will need to make the most of her opportunities and get her shots on frame.

I don't think the Nigerians can afford to put nine behind the ball and hope to stave off the Germans for 90 minutes. Germany would be able to pound the ball into the middle where their superior size and strength would make it a nightmare for the Nigerian defense. Young defenders Osinachi Ohale and Helen Ukaonu will need to play near perfect soccer for Nigeria to stay in this match. Precious Dede will be the last line of defense for Nigeria and one would guess she will have to make some big saves at some point in the match for her team to stay in it.

Nadine Angerer and the Germans finally gave up a World Cup goal for the first time since 2003, but it took a perfect free kick from Sinclair to do it. They don't surrender goals easily, but quick counterattacks might expose some weakness and it should certainly be part of the Nigerian strategy against them. The tall German defense is a perfect foil for Nigerian set pieces.

Germany is always dangerous on corners and free kicks, especially Kerstin Garefrekes whose height and heading ability are top notch as she showed with her goal against Canada on Sunday.

Germany should win this game, it's just a matter of by how much. Nigeria has a game squad, but playing Germany in their home country is a whole different game.

My Prediction: Germany 4, Nigeria 0.