Women’s World Cup, after day 12: The contenders, and which teams should be happy to hang around

Group stage is gone, but all of the favorites are still here. Thanks to a format that sends 16 of the Women’s World Cup’s 24 teams through to the knockout round, the only real surprise on the outside looking in is Spain. Even then, La Roja was making its tournament debut. It’s hard to say “it’s not a knockout round without them.”

By the time Ignacio Quereda’s team was walking off the field last night in Ottawa, though, it’d played its part in South Korea’s first World Cup win (2-1). Having taken only one point in its previous two games (a draw against also eliminated Costa Rica), there was little to recommend star creator Verónica Boquete’s team for another round.

“It was a game of two halves,” Quereda said afterward, his team having failed to improve on its tournament’s first 180 minutes. “In the first we dominated, and in the second we lost our position and our fitness. After they equalized, we collapsed.”

The rest of the day also lacked surprise. France throttled Mexico, 5-0, to take first place in Group F, with Les Bleues owing the English a thank you after the Lionesses took care of business against previously first place Colombia, 2-0. England’s also going through, with Colombia’s third place finish creating a date with the United States in the Round of 16.

In Group E, Brazil closed out a perfect round, giving superstar attacker Marta a day off while defeating Costa Rica, 1-0, but like Japan, the tournament’s other perfect team, Brazil’s record was partly a function of an unexpectedly weak group. For the defending champions, Group C thinned out when Switzerland was unable to convert the numerous chances it created, while Spain, another first time European qualifier, could not challenge in Group E as teams like Costa Rica held Boquete in check. Perhaps the World Cup isn’t expanding too quickly as much as it’s giving too many spots to European teams.

But those thin groups leave us with new questions going into the knockout round. On record alone, Brazil and Japan have put up the best results, but they’ve also had the easiest run of games, and neither have put up amazing scorelines. The teams that have throttled their opposition, sides like Germany (having scored 14 more goals than its opponents) and Norway (plus-six goals scored) gave each other a blemish, while another team on seven points, the United States, has only scored one goal in its last two games.

Only six teams reach the knockout round without a loss, and one of those, Canada, only won one of three games. For each favorite with flaws, you can pick out another underdog with potential. Even the two perfect ones have left questions unanswered.

“Anyone ranked in the top 10 to 12 places can win the World Cup …,” Australia head coach Alen Stajcic told Bleacher Report, an assessment that rings true after his 10th-ranked team trouble both the world No. 2 (United States) and No. 5 (Sweden) in Group D. “[T]that’s what we’re striving for. All the top teams are beatable by the next five or six in the pecking order—and I put us in that bracket.”

That bracket. It takes on a different connotation when an actual bracket is in place. The Round of 16 one from Wikipedia looks cool enough:

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What Stajcic is actually referring to is less of a bracket than a pecking order, one that seemed pretty clear before the World Cup. Germany, the U.S. and France were on top – the favorites – with a cluster of dark horses below: Japan, Sweden, and Brazil. That’s probably the top “five or six” to which Stajcic refers.

But particularly with that wide open bottom half of the knockout round bracket, the world’s second tier will play a huge factor over the next two-and-a-half weeks in Canada. Australia is a good bet to upset Brazil, while Norway has already shown it can trouble a team of Germany’s quality. Canada will have some home nation mojo behind it, and teams like England and the Netherlands have regard (England’s no. 6 ranking) or talent to recommend it.

Yet given what we’ve seen from China’s defending and the danger Cameroon’s flashed going forward, it’s worth reassessing that pecking order. After all, neither team was part of contenders’ picture 11 days ago, but both appear set to give a quarterfinal foe trouble net week in Ottawa. (The two teams open the knockout round against each other Saturday in Edmonton).

Seems to me there are four groups – a tedious number for a mere 16 teams, but there’s no getting around it. From alive but flawed through the one true favorite, Stajcic’s bracket appears to have four tiers, with 270 minutes of play from each team giving us little reason to change our views on the tournament’s main threats.

Alive, but flawed

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In Cameroon’s defense, it’s unclear the team is actually flawed. At least, it hasn’t had a flaw exposed in the same way other teams in this group have. But a thin Group C told us very little about Cameroon, other than it refused to be the pushover African team too many anticipated when the this year’s field was expanded from 16 teams to 24. Instead, the Lionesses are proving slightly indomitable, perhaps even worthy of being placed above this group.

This bracket’s other teams, though have issues. China has had problems generating opportunities to score, with one of its goals coming via a generous penalty kick, the other from a Dutch defensive breakdown. The Netherlands has two goals in six major tournament games over the last 25 months, while 10 of Switzerland’s 11 goals came against Ecuador. Colombia has had only six shots on target in three games, and a South Korean team that most thought would have struggle to score is now having trouble keep goals out.

Can beat anybody, but not often

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If Canada wasn’t the host nation, it would be in the first bracket, but playing at home has helped teams in the past. For John Herdman’s team, goals would help more, with only Ashley Lawrence managing one from open play in group stage. The defense has responded, but it’s responded against three teams that have failed to instill any fear going forward. For the home nation, it’s still all up to Christine Sinclair finding her scoring touch.

England has no flaws, but it also lacks strengths. It will need some help to beat a true favorite. Meanwhile a young, fast Australia team can overcome the defensive evils the U.S. exposed if Lisa de Vanna continues scoring goals.

Then there’s Sweden, a team that would have been in a higher bracket at the start of the tournament. Given the defending we saw against Nigeria and, at times, Australia, Pia Sundhage’s team seems to have the type of significant flaw teams higher in the pecking order don’t.

True contenders, just not the favorite

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Norway is the surprise name here, but give the team’s strengths, setup, and what we saw against Germany, the former champions are a threat. A tight midfield with Solveig Gulbrandsen’s experience can hold any team close, meaning one goal from Isabell Herlovsen or Ada Hegerberg could be enough to upset anyone.

One goal could also be enough for the U.S., who came through the tournament’s toughest group having conceded only once. While the attack is sputtering, a Becky Sauerbrunn-led defense is stepping up. Abby Wambach set piece goals alone might get the U.S. to the final four.

Then there’s the other 2011 finalist, Japan – another team that’s only allowed one goal this far. Against a weak group, that type of defensive success was expected, though the team’s lack of goals (a pre-tournament concern) remains an issue. Still, with Homare Sawa, Mizuho Sakaguchi and Aya Miyama in midfield, Japan has the ability to congest the middle for anyone a formula which, combined with strong defending, produced success in 2011 and 2012.

Another team with talent in the middle, France, lost in group stage to Colombia, bringing many preexisting doubts to the surface. Yet in the team’s only group stage blemish, it still outshot its opponents 21-3. Finishing is still a concern, but after a 5-0 win over Mexico, Les Bleues appear to have assuaged all the new Chicken Littles.

As for Brazil, the team appears to be one of the most solid in this tournament, but games against South Korea, Costa Rica, and Spain tell us little about how it will do in a big step up to Australia. Until then, any conclusions about goalkeeping, defense, or the 37-year-old legs of Formiga in midfield is still speculation. Brazil is the unproven favorite.

The favorite

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In Germany’s one blemish, a 1-1 draw in its second game against Norway, it didn’t allow a goal from open play. It outshot the team that reach Euro 2013’s final 27-4 yet still dropped two points. As France found out two days later, it happens, even if Les Bleues dropped three points instead of two.

If that was Germany at its worse, Syliva Neid’s team is still in a much better place than others. Hers is the deepest, more talented team in the world – one that’s shown as much with a tournament best 15 goals in three games (from eight different players). The only goal the team has allowed was a brilliant Maren Mjelde free kick off the bottom of the cross bar.

The one qualm with Germany is its group, which featured two minnows: Thailand and Cote’Ivoire. But compared what the Germans did against those minnows to Norway, which conceded a goal and scored half as many times.

That may not sell anybody on Germany being particularly impressive, but it is an argument against the idea that German has been in any way flawed. If the European champions were a favorite coming into the tournament, they certainly deserve to be seen as one now.