Most people following the Women's World Cup in the States are gearing up for Sunday's main event - the seemingly obligatory meeting between the United States and Brazil, one that's come much sooner than anybody expected. Given the match has snuck up on us and forced everybody to recycle the Hope Solo-Greg Ryan angles again (for the first time in a whole two weeks), it's understandable casual fans are focusing on the rematch of 2007's semifinal. But it's also a mistake.
If you know a fan that's overlooking a great double bill on Saturday, grab them by the shoulders and focus their attention on what might be the best single day of soccer in the tournament. This coming Wednesday (semifinal day) will also be good, but that's a weekday. With two semifinal-caliber matchups on Saturday, we can enjoy a marquee doubleheader without fear of the boss catching us dwelling on MatchTrax.
Saturday's action starts at noon ET with two of the trademark names in world football.
uarterfinal #1: England versus France
While these two nations have brand value, neither have legacies at the Women's World Cup. France has done their best of augment that with some impressive play in this year's event, but their two wins were uneven (if convincing), while they allowed themselves to be shell-shocked by Germany in their biggest group stage test.
Les Bleues clearly have the talent, approach, and acumen to do damage over the next week, but do they have the tournament savvy that comes with big match experience? The kind of big match experience we saw from the Germans on Wednesday?
To this point, the only hint of that came in the UEFA Champions League final, where a Lyon squad well represented within this France side pulled a mild upset over Turbine Potsdam. As a Barcelona core's big match experience helped Spain break their major championship bugaboo, can Les Fenottes' experience bolster Bruno Bini's team? Because in France's last major competition appearance (Euro 2009), they allowed themselves to be taken out by a Netherlands side that won a penalty shootout after a goalless 120 minutes - a Netherlands side that didn't make it to Germany 2011.
The main beneficiary of that early exit in 2009 was England. Their half of the knockout bracket opened up without the French, allowing the Lionesses a path to being Germany's sacrificial lamb in the final. There, England lost 6-2, and although their World Cup qualifying record was impressive, in this tournament, Hope Powell's team has given us little reason to think they're on France's level. Yes, there was the win over Japan, but while watching that match you were much more apt to think "What's happened to Japan" than "Wow, England's really stepped up."
Credit where credit's due: England won their group, while France did not. But France has to be considered the favorite here - the team more likely to move on and face the winner of USA-Brazil. Still, if England were to make it to the semifinal of their second consecutive major tournament, the history books won't waste too many columns documenting the relatively mild upset.
The more likely scenario sees France run out winners, and at the risk of playing too much into soccer cultural stereotyping, when you look at the team England's likely to start, you see a look of reasons why this could play out similarly to France-Canada, a match that ended 4-0 in France's favor. That was a bad day for Canada, so don't expect Les Bleues to roll over the Lionesses, but just as the Canada team had no real answer for France's set-up, skill on the ball, or speed advantage, England doesn't either.
Powell's two defensive midfielder-deployment will help, and she has a Kelly Smith to marshal play in the middle of the park, but how much of the ball will Kelly Smith see from a France team can dictate play? How does England get the ball off of French feet?
uarterfinal #2: Germany versus Japan
This time last week, we were wondering what's wrong with Germany while asking if Japan was for real. Now Silvia Neid's solved her problems just in time to make Japan rue their slip versus England.
This is a terrible matchup for Japan.
In Group B play, Japan was able to use the speed, technique, and combination play of its midfielders to their advantage. Even assuming they can rediscover that play (after losing it against England), Germany's double pivot of Simone Laudher (a player of the tournament favorite) and Kim Kulig will be able to match Homare Sawa and Mizuho Sakaguchi. Even if Aya Miyama provides support, Germany should be able to win the midfield battle both on talent and numbers thanks to Celia Okoyino da Mbabi (another tournament standout) at the top of the triangle with Fatmire 'Lira' Bajramaj helping from wide. And don't discount forward Inka Grings' ability and willingness to help, given the fluidity of a German attacking three that also includes Kerstin Garefrekas.
Germany's only weakness has been in central defense, but with their strength in midfield and Japan's continued troubles establishing a scoring threat from the forward positions, we could see Germany's center backs go relatively untested.
There is also a style issue that must be discussed, one that we also saw on the men's side. When Australia moved into ACF and had unexpectedly good results in World Cup qualifying (going undefeated while earning their spot at South Africa 2010), it was apparent others in the region were having difficulty adjusting to a style of play that allowed the likes of Tim Cahill and Joshua Kennedy turn matches by winning physical challenges on the end of direct play (combining for five of Australia's 10 open-play goals in qualifying). That much more northern European approach was foreign to a region where technical proficiency, speed, fitness and organization play more prominent roles. (It's worth noting that Japan won the last Asian championship on the men's side, defeating Australia in the 2010 Asian Cup final in Qatar.)
Japan's ladies seem subject to the same effect, an effect we saw in the team's struggles against a lackluster US side in World Cup tuneups. The US is not more fit, faster, more skilled or better organized than the Japanese. Yet their style (as well as advantages in other areas) is a particular problem for Japan.
That stylistic effect manifested itself again against England and may partially explain why Japan has not had more success at previous World Cups.
But only partially, because while Japan did seem to have a stylistic (if not physical) problem with England, they have executed their set pieces well during this tournament. And what weakness did we see from Germany against France? Who goals allowed from restarts.
If coach Norio Sasaki is going to win this game, a good start could be asking Miyama to run past Garafrekes and take on the back line. Ask Shinobu Ohno to do the same on the opposite side. Either beat the defenders, draw whistles, or give up the ball trying, but find out early whether the official is going to call a tight game. If Japan can use their speed to draw some fouls and use their restarts to test suspect German set piece defending, they have a route to the first goal.
And often times in soccer, all you need is the first goal.