Canada opened up it's football pitches to the world two weeks ago and the action has lived up to the hype. The past two weeks have seen 24 of the top teams around the globe compete and battle it out in the group stage. There have been some highlights, some low points and plenty of outstanding action. Now the field has been gently trimmed from 24 to 16 and the Knockout Stage begins. To put it simple, bring your A game every game or it could be your last!
Before we enter into the #TwineTime picks for the playoffs, let's take a quick look back at the hit and misses of the past two weeks, via penalty kicks:
Top Shelf Goal: Goals, goals and more goals. If you are a fan who hates seeing those 0-0 linescores, you should have been quite happy with this world cup so far. In the 36 games played in the group stage, only twice did we see the dreaded double nil final score. Unfortunately one came from home side Canada vs. New Zealand mind you (the other being the pivotal USA vs. Sweden heavyweight fight). But nonetheless, there have been lots of goals to cheer for in the remaining 34 matches. We even saw double digits twice but more on that below.
Wide Right Miss: Blowouts! On day two, top ranked Germany shell shocked newbie Ivory Coast 10-0 and the collective sports world let out a loud moan in displeasure. As much as we enjoy seeing goals, at this level nobody wants to see massive blowouts like this. You felt for Les elephants as this was their first step onto the international scene and this is how they were welcomed. Fast forward 5 days and we see a similar result, this time involving two debuting nations. Switzerland throttled Ecuador 10-1. This was also Ecuador's second straight one-sided defeat, having lost their opener to yet again another new nation, Cameroon, 6-0. These types of blowouts show just how far the sport still needs to come for better parity across the globe.
Low Left Goal: Growing the sport. I am a huge fan of expanding the field to 24 teams. Considering the first Women's World Cup had only 12 teams, this is a huge step up. Sure, as noted above, there are still some one-sided contests going on but how can you grow the sport in countries around the world without granting them the opportunity and experience to play with the top nations at a high-level event? While the blowouts can be seen as a negative for the sport, it is also a long-term positive. The continents of Africa and South America (minus Brazil) still have a way to go to catch up with Europe and North America but the gap is closing. Look at Cameroon, qualifying for the Round of 16 and having a very realistic shot at the quarterfinals. I would say in 8 years from now, don't be surprised to see the sport continue to grow and for the format to match the men's world cup with 32 teams competing.
Goalie Save: Host Nation Struggles. Ok this might be a bit dramatic but Team Canada hasn't looked their best in the group stage matches. Winning the group scoring only 2 goals sets a new record for lowest goals ever scored at a World Cup by a group winner. The offense just has not found the rhythm yet and the defense at times has looked a bit weak. Could this be just the added pressure of playing at home? Perhaps. Could this also be the team just playing and reacting to how their opponents played them? More than likely I would say. China and New Zealand did not really go full press on the Canadians and the Dutch, the team I thought had the most explosive offense in the group, held back and played safe knowing a loss would surely eliminate them. When they needed the tying goal late in the game, they found it with ease. I wouldn't jump off the deep end and say all hope is lost for the host nation but I also wouldn't tell Team Canada supporters from coast to coast to not be a bit concerned.
Down The Pipe Gggooaaallll: Favorites March On. The top teams entering the tournament (Germany, USA, France, Canada, Japan, Brazil) all did exactly what we expected. They won their groups and look poised for a playoff run. Ok, sure France was upset by Columbia and Canada/USA/Germany settled for draws in games they probably should have won but yet here they are, all group stage winners. None of these teams have really looked like perennial powerhouse teams and I would not say any team has been more impressive than any other. But the major factor being the teams expected to win did so. Sure Sweden and England may have a higher world ranking but they also found themselves in pools with teams in the top 3 in the world. Somebody had to win the group and the favorites all did so. How they progress forward though is another question. Are any of the teams ready to take it to the next level and go from threat to champion?
So if we add up the Group Stage penalty kicks, we have 3 goals and 2 saves. Chalk up a win so far for #Canada2015 I would say....although it was a narrow win. I would expect the play on the pitch to be revved up though starting with a Round of 16 game between China and Cameroon in Edmonton (a game #TwineTime will be attending). Speaking of the knockout stage, let's get to the #TwineTime picks shall we?
ROUND OF 16
China #CHN vs. Cameroon #CMR
Talk about a contrast of styles to kick off the knockout stage. A stellar defense, China, versus an explosive offense, Cameroon. Which prevails? China has already shown they can stop world class scorers in holding off Canada for most of their opening round game but a late slip up cost them that game and they cannot afford the same here. Cameroon is led by the fan favorite star of the opening round, Gaëlle Enganamouit. She already has 3 goals, albeit all in that opening game dismantling of Ecuador. Can the freshman outclass the experiences seniors? This would be a huge boost to CAF if Cameroon can pull the upset....which I think will happen.
#TwineTime pick: #CAM 2 - #CHN 1
USA #USA vs. Columbia #COL
Columbia provided the only real upset in the opening round, shocking the heavily favored French in Moncton. However, with a chance to win the group and avoid this match, they faltered in losing to England and going from possible Group Stage winners to 3rd place lucky advancers. Was the France win more a slight on how the French prepared or is Columbia for real? If they are, here is there chance to prove it! The Americans advanced from the Group of Death relatively unscathed and seem ready for a long playoff run to reclaim a title they have not held since 1999. I think the dream ends for Cinderella in Edmonton.
#TwineTime pick: #USA 4 - #COL 0
Germany #GER vs. #Sweden #SWE
Yikes....what a match we have here. And what a game to open the Knockout Stage of this tournament. This could easily be a championship final...not a Round of 16 game. We have #1 Germany vs. #5 Sweden. Think of this, one of the top 5 teams in the world will not be in the quarterfinals. Sweden really has only themselves to blame though. They struggled in the Group of Death with USA, Australia and Nigeria. Coming away with 3 draws is not how you want to enter the knockout stage. This team needs to figure out how to win...and quick. They blew a 2 goal lead vs. Nigeria and had to fight back to tie Australia just to advance. Sure they played the US strong, holding them to a scoreless draw, but they need to find ways to finish off their matches. Germany is not going to surrender the early leads and have the ability to score and score often. The Germans found the back of the net 15 times in their 3 games and only conceded 1 goal. Ok, yes, they were beating up on debut nations Thailand and Ivory Coast and sure they did only come away with a tie in their one actual challenge game vs. Norway, but the point being this team can score and enter the playoffs with confidence. These ladies want their World Cup championship back. Anja Mittag leads the tournament with 4 goals scored and will look to add to that number. Does Sweden coach Pia Sundhage have something up her sleeve to shock the world?
#TwineTime pick: #GER 1 - #SWE 1 (Germany wins in PK)
France #FRA vs. South Korea #KOR
The 2019 Women's World Cup hosts, France, would love nothing more than to go home with the title of Champions and Upcoming Hosts. France was the receiver of an upset loss in the group stage but rebounded quite nicely from that loss in their 5-0 beat down of Mexico to win the group. Is their path to the championship easier as a result, debatable I would say, but here they are. South Korea looked lackluster in their opening two games, losing to Brazil and tying Costa Rica. The #TwineTime pick to advance out of their group though came through when it mattered most and picked up their first ever win at the Women's World Cup, knocking off newbie Spain 2-1 to close the group. I am not so sure they have the magic to pull the upset against Les Bleues though.
#TwineTime pick: #FRA 3 - #KOR 0
Brazil #BRA vs. Australia #AUS
It's the Samba versus the Matildas in Moncton. The crowd in the Atlantic is in for quite a match actually. This should be one of the more offensive games in this round as both nations love to drive for the net and can score goals. Brazil rolled through their group not conceding a single goal along the way, the only team in the tournament so far to post all shutouts. Australia is quite different than South Korea, Spain and Costa Rica mind you. The Matildas actually can score. This is a fast team, as shown in their group play. They were paired in the Group of Death with USA, Sweden and Nigeria and survived as the second place team. They scored 4 goals in their 3 games so they will challenge the Brazil defense. The difference maker here is Australia also conceded 4 goals in 3 games. If they want to make their third straight quarterfinal, they are going to have to tighten up that defense...which will be a challenge against the Samba nation.
#TwineTime pick: #BRA 3 - #AUS 2
Japan #JPN vs. Netherlands #NED
The defending champs have been flying a bit under the radar in the opening round. Sure they went a perfect 3-0 in their group but considering they were paired with 3 debut nations, I think many expected a more dominant result. They squeaked out 1 goal wins in all three games and, usually due to finding the net early in each contest, seemed quite content to just sit back and play a defensive game to get the wins. I don't think that strategy is going to help them repeat though, and could have them going home early against the first-time #TeamOranje. The Netherlands suffered high's and low's in their group stage, recording their first ever win in their first ever match against New Zealand only to fall flat against China and then push hard for the tie against Canada. One has to think the group stage will be considered one of missed opportunities for the Dutch, who could have easily won the group rather than find themselves sitting in third. The Netherlands were the #TwineTime dark horse team to cause a ripple effect in the draw, time to prove me correct ladies.
#TwineTime pick: #NED 2 - #JPN 1
Norway #NOR vs. England #ENG
Is there any match up in the Round of 16 generating less buzz than this one? Maybe because this is one of those weird group stage runner-up vs runner-up battles? Maybe a lack of big names on both sides? I am not quite sure what it is but of all 8 games taking place over the next few days, this one seems to have little interest to many footie fans outside of Oslo or London. Let's not get the facts wrong though, these are both very good teams. England is ranked #6 in the world and Norway sits at #11. The Lionesses rebounded from a tough opening loss to France with back-to-back 2-1 wins over Mexico and Columbia to slot themselves into this game. Norway also scored big wins against Thailand and Ivory Coast but really had the world take notice in their perfectly executed 1-1 draw with Germany. They only lost out on winning the group due to goal differential (tough to overcome Germany's 10-0 win). England is a team on the rise, Norway is a team trying to recapture their glory (they are a former winner remember in 1995).
#TwineTime pick: #NOR 1 - #ENG 1 (Norway wins in PK)
Canada #CAN vs. Switzerland #SUI
It's the battle of Red and White versus.....Red and White! The host nation against the up and coming Europeans. This is going to be an intriguing match. The Swiss looked very good in their first world cup group stage, dominating Ecuador and suffering closely fought back-to-back 2-1 losses to Japan and Cameroon. Switzerland will be lead by Ramona Bachmann, who already has 3 goals this tournament. We know they are fast and can score but they also showed they are able to neutralize a top offensive team like Japan. Canada will need to turn it up a notch to avoid an early exit on home soil. To do so, the offense will need to come alive. The Swiss will give them chances to run down the pitch and have opportunity to score, the question is can players like Christine Sinclair, Sophie Schmidt and Joelle Filigno take advantage? Both teams play a similar style and format so this should be a close and competitive game. The difference maker could be the crowd in BC Place. If Canada can get them fired up in the first half, they could ride that momentum to a quarterfinal berth.
#TwineTime pick: #CAN 2 - #SUI 0
There are my Round of 16 predictions footie fans and pitch predictors. I hope, if you live in Vancouver, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa or Moncton, you head down and take in some of the action over the next few days. Support the nations competing, whether they are your home nation or not, and continue to showcase the hospitality, sportsmanship and love of the game we Canadians are known for. In addition, I welcome the fans from around the globe who have come to Canada to support their nations and support the continued growth of female football. I can only hope you, as visitors, have enjoyed your time spent so far and continue to enjoy for as long as you stay with us. #Welcome #Enjoy