After a lovely trip to Newcastle and a conference on social and political philosophy concluded, I am back in France and ready to brave the weather to see some exciting quarterfinal ties.
As you may have noticed, it’s effectively the US against the world at this point. If you want to see my thoughts on what this European dominance means, check out my piece over at AllForXI.
Norway v. England (27 June – Le Havre)
A rematch of the Round of 16 game from the last World Cup. England won that showdown and will be favored to come out ahead here again. But not heavily favored. On paper, the England squad is superior, with better top-level talent and greater depth. But that certainly does not mean Norway is weak. And what they may lack in individual ability, they have made up for with organization and structure. Their greatest weakness is an over-reliance on a few players to orchestrate the attack. If England can successfully mark Graham Hansen, for example, they will significantly dull the edge of Norway’s attack. By contrast, England have five or six viable fulcrums of the attack, and multiple players in most of those positions who can provide different variations. Look for Lucy Bronze at right back to play a crucial role. Her ability to overlap wide right, or to tuck in and create from a more central position could go a long way to unlocking the Norwegian defense.
One other point to look out for: both England center backs are in doubt—Steph Houghton from the injury she received from a vicious tackle at the end of their match against Cameroon. Millie Bright to a flu bug that’s apparently working through the camp. However, coach Phil Neville has rotated heavily, with an eye toward ensuring that anyone could step into the team if need be. That has been widely attacked by the English press, but may yet prove to be prescient here.
France v. United States (28 June – Paris)
This is the game we all marked on our calendars last winter when the draw was announced. And now it’s finally arrived. A couple of days ago, after a very difficult match against Brazil, France was being talked down significantly. Then the next day the US needed a couple of soft penalties to defeat Spain and things were recalibrated again. To my eyes, this remains every bit the exciting clash that it was always expected to be. Neither team is flawless, but both are exceptionally good. And I have a feeling that we’ll see both bring good performances here.
The game is likely to be defined primarily by who controls the wide spaces. Both sides like to attack with width, though it’s more of an absolute religion with the US than with France. A huge amount will therefore depend on which of those wide strikers turn up on the day. For the US, Megan Rapinoe has looked well off her game. But if she can find her form—or if Ellis does the somewhat unthinkable and starts Christen Press there instead—the left wing could be an important danger zone, given that Torrent at right back is exploitable for France. By the same token, Crystal Dunn has had a lot of difficulty at left back, and she hasn’t come up against anyone nearly as good as Kadidiatou Diani or Delphine Cascarino.
But while the wings will be crucial, we shouldn’t completely ignore the middle. With players like Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis in fine form, the US has finally started to generate dangerous attacks from the inside out at this tournament. If they can maintain that sort of passing acumen here, it could make it much harder for France to cover all their gaps. But that will be no easy thing, given the strength of the French midfield. It all may therefore come back to Amandine Henry. If she produces a game at the top of her abilities, it could be enough to shift the whole tide in France’s favor.
Italy v. Netherlands (29 June – Valenciennes)
Every team left at this stage is excellent, but these are arguably two of the least-excellent teams remaining. In theory, the Dutch are the stronger team. The 2017 European champions are stuffed full of attacking talent, and should have enough to overpower an Italian defense that hasn’t yet had to face anything on this level. But at least so far, the Netherlands hasn’t been able to produce the sort of free-floating attack that we’ve all hoped to see. Their two wide forwards, Lieke Martens and Shanice Van de Sanden have both been well out of form, and the whole team seems to be lacking in ideas. If Vivianne Miedema has a good game, it probably won’t matter since she can score a brace from one and a half chances. But if she doesn’t, it’s unclear where the goals will come from at the moment.
Italy looked knackered against China, and I worry for them having to play another game on short rest. But of all the teams at this stage, they’ll be feeling the least pressure and will have the best chance to let the adrenaline carry them. Strong defensive positioning may be enough to keep them from getting overrun, and they have the personnel to come at the Dutch defense quickly—not so much through individual speed, but through quick and intelligent ball movement.
Germany v. Sweden (29 June – Rennes)
The Germans have not been especially fancied, but have done their business with relative calm all tournament. After an extremely difficult opening hour against China, they haven’t really been troubled. I don’t see any particular reason to think Sweden will be the team to knock them out, though there also isn’t any reason they couldn’t get it done. Both of these teams have been unfairly treated as ‘boring’ in quite a few corners, but there’s actually quite a lot here to enjoy.
On both sides, an impact sub could end up making a big difference. For Germany, it doesn’t sound like Dzsenifer Maroszán will be able to play a full 90 (or 120) on her broken toe but might be able to come in for a crucial late intervention. For Sweden, Lina Hurtig got a full match against Thailand but has otherwise been a late substitute in the other three games. She’s exceptionally talented and might just be the spark they need.
According to the betting odds, England, the US, and the Netherlands are modest favorites, while Germany are a bit heavier favorites. I do think those are the four likely winners, but I also would be tempted to take the odds and bet on the underdog in three of the four cases (with Italy the one exception).