Tomorrow begins the knockout stage. While we all take a break today, here is a preview for each match. If you want a bit more detail on a couple of the most tantalizing games, head over and check out our own Allison Cary’s post on the Top Three Matchups in the Round of 16.
Germany – Nigeria (22 June, Grenoble)
Germany will be heavy favorites, but it would be a huge mistake to write off Nigeria. They were after all one bizarre penalty retake away from earning a draw against France. And their strike force has the speed and intelligent movement to wreck the fragile Germany defense. The big question will be whether Nigeria can do enough to harass the German midfield. If this turns into a training ground exercise sort of match, with Nigeria endlessly chasing, I have faith in Germany’s ability to pick off the defense and score the goals they’ll need.
Norway – Australia (22 June, Nice)
One of the most exciting matches of this round. If you subtract Sam Kerr, Norway has arguably the stronger team in all three lines right now. Of course, add Kerr back and the equations start to change pretty rapidly. Not only is she arguably the best striker in the world, her mere presence warps games and forces the other team to re-organize to accommodate. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out. In theory, this should be a high-scoring thriller, with Norway using their ability to attack directly to pose all sorts of troubles for Australia’s cobbled-together backline, and Australia firing back with Kerr and Foord up top. But it could go very much in the other direction. If Norway decide to focus on controlling the midfield and starving Kerr of chances, this might end up a tedious 0-0 decided on penalties.
England – Cameroon (23 June, Valenciennes)
England went three-for-three in the group stage without quite kicking into full gear. This could be more of the same, against a Cameroon team who has proven to be quite difficult to play without posing nearly as much attacking threat as anticipated. As with every England game, one big question will be who Phil Neville chooses to play. It’s a squad with a huge amount of depth, and with five or six spots where you can make compelling arguments in multiple directions about who to play. Will he go with experience or youth? Pace or precision? Volatility or dependability? I’m particularly curious to see whether Georgia Stanway might have done enough to play herself into taking over the role of creative midfielder from Fran Kirby.
France – Brazil (23 June, Le Havre)
This is the glamor tie of the round, with two of the great names in world soccer. But these are very much two teams moving in different directions. France is a co-favorite for the tournament, while Brazil is an aging team trying to eke out one more result before their key players shuffle off the stage. Still, for all their struggles coming into the tournament (nine losses in a row!), Brazil managed six points in the group stage, including a solid performance against Italy in their last game. But for all that Italy has been great, they’re no France. Brazil will need much better from Marta (who hasn’t really contributed much, to be honest) and will need flawless games from the likes of Thaisa and Andressinha. That’s certainly possible, but if they expose any cracks, that midfield is going to get absolutely run over by France, and that will probably be the game.
USA – Spain (24 June, Reims)
If this game feels familiar, it should. The US played Spain just five months ago. It was a 1-0 game for the US that day, but Spain earned plaudits for their excellent possession and ability to control the game for long stretches. Expect some of the same this time, but probably to a lesser extent. The US were in their off-season last time, with Spain right in the middle of their season. That’s not true now, and it’s hard to see this version of the US conceding any space for Spain to play. The main question for the game is whether Spain is able to exert enough control in the middle of the pitch to dictate play, or if the US can overload the wings and bring overwhelming force to bear against the center backs before anyone can get back to help them. I’m betting on the latter, and would be surprised at any result other than a comfortable win for the US.
Sweden – Canada (24 June, Paris)
This has been widely billed as a boring tie between two teams that play hyper-defensively. Which is a good test of whether folks have actually been watching Sweden. Because this version of Sweden is hardly the stolid defending team that rode a series of drab games to the Olympic final three years ago. They may not be scoring much, but it’s not for lack of trying. They’re not going to say damn the torpedoes and go full leather into the attack, but this shouldn’t be a completely cagey match, and has at least some potential to be genuinely interesting. Both coaches have the ability and willingness to adapt, which could make for some fascinating chess as the game progresses.
Italy – China (25 June, Montpellier)
Italy were the surprise winners of Group C and as a reward got a game that certainly looks easier on paper than their groupmates. But in practice, this looks like precisely the sort of team that Italy will hate to play. China showed against Germany that they have the ability to play an aggressive physical game which depends very little on doing anything constructive. But Italy’s success so far has largely come from two things. First, picking at the weak spots in their opponent’s setup and then ruthlessly exploiting them. Second, using their physicality to disrupt the opposition, riding their luck a little bit to avoid getting tossed into the sin bin. Will they have the same results against the chaotic bundle of energy that is China? On the opposite side, will China look to play at full tilt like they did against Germany, or will they sit a bit deeper and ride their luck like they did against Spain. The former was far more successful than the latter, so I’d be surprised to see anything else here. Let’s all say a brief prayer for the lower-body health of Italy’s forwards.
Netherlands – Japan (25 June, Rennes)
On paper, this looks like the most exciting match of the round. Two teams with a lot of attacking potential, but in very different styles. The Dutch will look to spread the defense, to create spaces for Miedema to work in, and to give their wide attackers targets to ping with crosses, and create room for slashing runs. This relies on a great deal of technical ability but is fundamentally about vertical movement. Japan, by contrast, are all about triangles. They’ll hope to move the ball quickly through the middle. So far, Japan has been more potential than reality, and my gut tells me that will continue here as well. The Netherlands are absolutely exploitable, but I’m not sure Japan has enough firepower to match the goals they’re likely to concede. At the risk of invoking the pundit’s curse and ensuring this ends up 0-0, I’d expect goals—quite a lot of goals—here.