July 4, 2011

World Cup: Day 10

There will be four matches played on Tuesday, the final group stage matches in both Group A and Group B. In Group A, the only thing left to be decided is placement. Germany and France have already booked their quarterfinal berths, while Canada and Nigeria have been eliminated. France had the goal differential advantage, so a win or a tie for the French and they will take Group A

In Group B, things are a bit more interesting. Japan has clinched a quarterfinal spot, but not the top spot. England could finish anywhere from first to third in the group. Mexico has slim hopes of advancing to the quarterfinals, but a lot of things will have to go right for them. New Zealand will be playing for pride when they face Mexico.

Germany vs. France (2:45 pm eastern)

France is coming off an impressive 4-0 victory over Canada, while Germany had to struggle through an extremely physical 1-0 win over Nigeria. Because of those results, a tie would mean France wins Group A and Germany would finish second.

But much of the talk around the German team hasn't been about their victory over Nigeria or the upcoming match against France, but about Birgit Prinz. One of the all-time greats in women's soccer, she made a fairly early exit in the 53rd minute in Friday's match against Nigeria and appeared to be none too happy about it. She was criticized by many in the German press for her actions.

Also in question for the Germans is midfielder Melanie Behringer, who came off injured in the match against Nigeria. While this match against France isn't essential to Germany winning the Cup, it is doubtful that they would want to lose to anybody, let alone to neighboring France, a team they thrashed by a 5-1 margin the last time they played them in the 2009 Euros. There will be a certain amount of pride at stake for this match.

France is coming off one of their most dominating performances in recent memory, maybe ever against a team as good as Canada. Normally, the Germans have a midfield advantage against every team they play, but France can put a strong midfield group on the field as well. Louisa Necib has to be considered one of the top players in the tournament so far. After a rather average first match, Camille Abily looked very good against Canada.

Germany probably has the edge in attacking players, mostly because they have so many good ones. Even with Prinz struggling and Grings not starting, German has a potent attack. Young Okoyino da Mbabi came to the forefront in the first two matches for Germany. Midfielder Kerstin Garefrekes is one of the best in the world in the air. Young midfielders Simone Laudehr, the goal scorer against Nigeria, and Kim Kulig make Germany as strong as any in the center.

Two of the best young forwards in women's soccer will probably have a lot to say about who wins this match. Alexandra Popp for Germany and Marie-Laure Delie for France will be among the next wave of great attacking players in the world. Gaetane Thiney is a dangerous scoring threat for France as well.

Both teams have solid, veteran back lines. Germany is led by Linda Bresonik and Babett Peter at the outside back positions, with Saskia Bartusiak and Annike Krahn in the middle. The French have the great veteran Sonia Bompastor at one outside position and Laure LePailleur got the start at the other outside position after Wendie Renard was injured in the opener. Laura Georges will definitely be one of France's central defenders, with the other being between Ophelie Meilleroux and Sabrina Viguier.

Germany has one of the best keepers in the world in Nadine Angerer. She has given up only one goal in eight World Cup matches. Berangere Sapowicz will be the French goalkeeper and it may well come down to her play if France is to win.

In spite of the injury to Behringer and the distraction regarding Prinz, one has to think that the Germans have the most depth of any team in this tournament. Angerer gives them an extra edge in goal. I expect this to be a close match, but I think Germany will want to send a message.

My Prediction: Germany 2, France 0

Canada vs. Nigeria (2:45 pm eastern)

This game has very little meaning except that both teams would like to end this World Cup on a positive note and come away with a win here.

Canada will be looking for some measure of redemption after a poor outing against a very good French squad. It was just one of those days when they were outmatched and nothing seemed to go right.

Considering the physical nature of the Germany-Nigeria match on Friday, one wonders whether Carolina Morace will want to play Christine Sinclair, who is suffering from a broken nose and also appeared to get cut near her eye in the second match against France.

It will be interesting to see whether Morace will make many changes to her lineup, given the performance against France and the relative unimportance of this match. And she might want to get some of her younger players experience in a World Cup match, although it must be said that the Canadian squad is one of the oldest in Germany.

Nigeria will be looking for their first World Cup victory since 1999, when they qualified for the quarterfinals with two group stage wins. They are led by great veterans in Stella Mbachu, Perpetua Nkwocha, Precious Dede, and talented young players like Desire Oparanozie and Ebere Orji.

It will be a hard match to predict, because it is uncertain how each coach will approach the match and the lineup.

My Prediction: Canada 1, Nigeria 1.

Japan vs. England (12:15 pm eastern)

Japan has already clinched a spot in the quarterfinals, but England has a little work yet to be done. A tie gets England into the quarterfinals and a victory gives them Group B. In the event of a loss, the result of the Mexico-New Zealand match will decide if they qualify for the quarterfinals and it could come down to goal differential, where England has a healthy advantage.

Certainly, this will be a contrast in styles. Japan will rely on technicals skills, using their passing game to break down England's defense and Aya Miyama's set pieces to given them scoring opportunities. But England will not be so easy to score on as Mexico was on set pieces. England has a tall physical squad and it is doubtbul that Homare Sawa will get uncontested headers in this match.

The Japanese have a great midfield, led by Sawa and Miyama. They also have both speed and creativeness up front with the likes of Shinobu Ohno, Yuki Nagasato, and Mana Iwabuchi. They play a patient game, waiting for opportunities to exploit their opponent's defenses. But four goal outbursts like the one against Mexico have been the exception, rather than the rule. Most often, Japan plays low scoring matches decided by one goal.

On defense, the Japanese start Yukari Kinga, Saki Kumagai, Azusa Iwashimizu, and Aya Sameshima. Kinga is a great veteran defender who also gets involved in the offense. It was her hard work that set up one of Sawa's goals against Mexico. Ayumi Kaihori has been the keeper in both matches for Japan.

Japan have given up only one goal so far. However, that one goal was on a header, which brings us to Japan's weakness on their back line, their size. Tall striker Amber Hearn from New Zealand was able to score on a header against Japan and the Nadeshiko can be exploited on set pieces, something that England, particularly Jill Scott, are very adept at.

Indeed, Scott headed in a goal against New Zealand and is the prime target player on set pieces for England. Another English midfielder, Fara Williams may not quite be as good as Miyama on placing free kicks, but she's darn close.

However, Kelly Smith will be the center of attention for England and rightfully so. Smith is still one of the best in the world and she draws multiple defenders every time she touches the ball. As for English forwards, Jess Clarke came off the bench to get the game winner against New Zealand and it wouldn't be a surprise to see her start this match. Eni Aluko, who got the starting assignment in the first two matches, has been unable to find the scoring touch as of late. Ellen White is another possibility at forward for England.

Karen Bardsley has good height and has been the starting English keeper over the past few months. She is generally very solid, but was caught off guard by Monica Ocampo's strike in the match against Mexico. The English defense may be suspect. They have given up two goals at the World Cup, certainly not bad, but the Japanese team will be the most skilled passing team they will face in Group B. Alex Scott is an excellent attacking player from the outside back position and she assisted on Jill Scott's goal against New Zealand.

Because of the goal differential, I believe England will go through to the quarterfinals, no matter what happens here. While they have posted a win and a tie, they have played rather lackluster soccer at times. After a tough first match, Japan put on quite a show against Mexico.

My Prediction: Japan 1, England 1

Mexico vs. New Zealand (12:15 pm eastern)

In many ways, it was disappointing to see New Zealand mathematically eliminated because they had played two close matches against two quality opponents. The Ferns would really like to get a victory in their last match in Germany. Mexico is still clinging to thin hopes of advancing, but they will have to score a lot of goals to make up the huge goal differential deficit after their 4-0 defeat at the hands of Japan.

The last time these two teams met was at the Cyprus Cup in March with Mexico winning by a surprising 5-0 margin. New Zealand will surely remember that as well and want to make amends.

Mexico will need to throw everything into the attack in this match. It is unrealistic to believe that England will lose to Japan by anything more than a goal, so Mexico will need to score at least four to have any chance.

That means their will be a lot of pressure on their best scoring options Maribel Dominguez, Monica Ocampo, Veronica Perez, Dinora Garza, and Stephany Mayor, to create offensive opportunities. Will young Charlyn Corral get a chance for action in this match?

Defensively, Mexico had a rough outing against the Japanese and were quite frankly horrible on defending set pieces. That has to improve against New Zealand or they will be in for another long day. Another question is whether or not Mexico will stay with their young keeper, Cecilia Santiago, or might they go to a more veteran option in either Erika Vanegas or Pam Tajonar.

New Zealand will try to use Amber Hearn's size to duplicate Homare Sawa's efforts against Mexico. Look for the Ferns to test the Mexican back line with balls over the defense, using speedy Sarah Gregorius as a target. Note that New Zealand has scored on both opponents so far.

The back line for New Zealand has held up fairly well so far. Ali Riley is very talented at outside back and look for her to attack frequently in this match. Rebecca Smith is the experience on the back line, while Anna Green usually is their set piece specialist. Jenny Bindon is very experienced in the goal for New Zealand.

Second halves have not been kind to the Ferns. They were even to Japan and one up on England at halftime of their two matches, only to lose both. Meanwhile, Mexico appeared to wear England down somewhat in the second half of their match. New Zealand has very little pressure on them, while Mexico will be the desperate team. I could see this match having a lot of scoring.

My Prediction: Mexico 2, New Zealand 2