June 17: Matchday 1
China 0 – 0 Spain
I was hoping against hope this would turn out to be an exciting game. Instead, it played mostly as expected, with Spain trying somewhat fruitlessly to score and China trying somewhat effectively to earn the scoreless draw that advanced them to the next round and protected them from the United States.
But it wasn’t quite as dull as that sounds. Spain couldn’t score, but they did actually create quite a bit. They had a period of about twenty minutes in the first half when they were totally in control, and building very coherently and effectively down the left side. It didn’t produce any goals, but they came close enough to feel pretty good about their approach. Things quieted down significantly to start the second half, as they succumbed to their usual tendency to pass and dribble themselves into oblivion rather than just taking a shot. But with the final twenty minutes they came back to life a bit, and actually put quite a significant amount of pressure on China. In the end, it didn’t produce any goals, but that was more to do with an outstanding performance from Peng Shimeng in China’s goal. But on another day, Spain could have won this 2-0 or 3-0.
What to make of all that really depends on what you think Spain’s fundamental problem is. If it’s a general lack of self confidence and belief, a 0-0 result against a pretty mediocre China team wasn’t the thing to unlock their potential. But if it’s an inability to actually take the shots that would turn all that possession into something useful, well they did actually demonstrate some progress here. That’s something they can build on.
Of course, there’s also a third problem, which is that Spain also suffers from the basic lack of a clinical finisher. They can create plenty but there’s never anyone there to put them away. And there frankly isn’t really anything they can do about that.
For China, this is pretty much the exact result they wanted. And they got it without doing much to hinder their chances in the round of 16. I anticipated a more physical performance from them, really looking to get in Spain’s faces (and shins, to be honest) and make life difficult. But they mostly didn’t play that way. Presumably, it’s because that style requires a lot of work, and they didn’t want to burn the energy. And that style also exposes you to a lot of risk of bookings – which could trigger suspensions of key players.
So instead they backed off, defended a bit deeper, and just hoped that they could hold out. It was actually quite surprising to see them play a fairly lackadaisical style, since energy and athleticism is kind of their whole thing. But it worked, albeit with a bit of luck.
None of this is to suggest that China was actively trying to throw the game. They were attacking, just not a whole lot, and not in any significant numbers. If one of the chances had gone in, I’m sure they would have celebrated a big win over a good team and taken their lumps in the knockout stage. But this was clearly not a team trying everything they could to win a game.
South Africa 0 – 4 Germany
I only caught tiny glimpses of this one, since it was on simultaneously with the China-Spain game. But from what I saw, Germany dominated, and maybe shut up a few of the critics who had started wondering if they were actually any good. At the same time, this was a rotated South Africa side, so Germany certainly should have been expected to dominate, so one doesn’t want to read too much into it.
They’ll certainly be happy to have notched a few more goals for some key players, but the really important thing is that they topped their group with the full 9 points, and secured themselves a spot on the other side of the bracket from the top two teams in the world. Well, probably. It does still depend on the US not losing to Sweden.
For South Africa, this wasn’t the final result they’d have hoped for, but for a first-time team in a very tough group, there were plenty of positives here. A great goal in their first game and a hard-fought game against China are both fantastic points to build from.
As with many new entrants to the tournament, it remains an open question whether this will actually be a foundation on which more support can be layered, or whether their institutions will let them down and the team will fail to scale these heights again. We’re all certainly hoping for the former.
Nigeria 0 – 1 France
South Korea 1 – 2 Norway
I couldn’t watch either of these games because I was on a train with no wifi coming back from Le Havre. From what I can tell, they both more or less went according to expectations, with France dominating but unable to find a goal, and with a fairly even game between South Korea and Norway.
The big controversy was obviously the penalty that determined the game in Nigeria-France. I haven’t seen anything but screen shots, but this is yet another example of the problem we’ve been discussing ad nauseum. The rules of soccer are not well-equipped for the burdens we are placing upon them, and it’s causing a lot of problems. I won’t dwell any further on the point now, but it’s absolutely something we’re going to need to come back to again.
These results put France through in first place, as we all expected, meaning that they have fulfilled their part of the bargain and slotted themselves in place to set up that quarterfinal showdown with the US. They’ll still have to get through the round of 16, of course, and the US may yet slip elsewhere. But it’s looking more and more likely.
Norway are through in second place, and booked a round of 16 match against which of Australia, Italy, and Brazil finishes second in Group C.
And Nigeria have been very hard done-by. The rules have been followed, but in text far more than spirit. And now they’ll have to wait on results in other groups to see if they will advance. They still have a good chance, though not a great one. They are behind China, and will almost certainly trail whoever finishes third in Group C. That means they need two of the following three things to happen:
- A draw in Scotland-Argentina
- A draw in Cameroon-New Zealand, or a 1-0 victory for New Zealand
- Chile to win by two goals or less, or draw, or lose (unless they lose by 15 goals)
These are predicated on the assumption (which I think is accurate) that would lose on the fair play tiebreaker if they end up equal on points, goal difference, and goals scored with any of these teams. But yeah, it’s a complicated process, and I’m sure the next couple days will not be fun for the Super Falcons.
– This was another great game from Mapi León, the Spanish center back who is a boatload of fun to watch play. Her aggressive ball-playing from the back would be incredibly dangerous on many teams, but it really works for Spain who love having an extra body in the midfield to start attacks. And she had quite a few excellent defensive stops and clearances that cut out potentially dangerous attacks. I called her out as a player to watch in my Group B preview and I’m feeling pretty good about that one.
– I commented on this during the game, but one major issue with the China-Spain match is the system in which 16/24 teams advance. It’s an inelegant setup, and one which makes it a little too easy for teams to advance. Any system is going to end up with dead rubber matches, or games where both teams are happy with a draw, but they’re more common when three-quarters of a group can advance. The worldwide dispersal of talent probably isn’t there yet to truly justify going to 32 teams, but I’m not sure it would be that big of a drop, and 32 is the obvious, objectively correct size for a tournament. Again, the talent probably isn’t there yet, so you’d likely end up with a bunch of groups with the top two teams both beating the bottom two teams and going through easily, which would hardly be more interesting. But I don’t think we’re that far away from this being a reasonable move.
Two games tomorrow, which will sort out the fate of Group C. This is certainly the most volatile group, with real potential for any of the top three teams to finish in any order.
- Jamaica – Australia. Jamaica are pretty much only playing for pride at this point, with no realistic path to the knockout rounds. But there has been a lot of positives so far, and they do have a foundation to build from. Australia will be looking to win, and win big. They could still top the group, and secure a spot in the easier half of the bracket, but it would take a big win, and some luck in the day’s other game.
- Italy – Brazil. Italy have been potentially my favorite team of the tournament so far, and this will be another test for them. Any result and they top the group. Even a one-goal loss would potentially be enough, since Australia would need to score five on Jamaica to pass them. But a two-goal loss would drop them below the Brazilians, and could even leave them stuck in third place.
If I had to guess, Italy-Brazil feels like a draw, leaving Italy to top the group, Australia to finish second, and Brazil third. But I really wouldn’t be surprised at any order here.