Women’s football

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group D

Full of geographic curiosities by congregating the two Iberian countries (Portugal and Spain) and two of the nations that comprise the United Kingdom (England and Scotland), Group D may ultimately fail to deliver much in the way of drama since the strongest sides are expected to bully the two debutants. Consequently, it’s entirely up to Portugal and injury-ravaged Scotland the task of spoiling the pre-written narrative.

England

Despite having previously reached the final at the Euro 2009, England’s campaign at the 2015 World Cup – where they overcome Germany to secure bronze – has been considered the dawn of a new era for the “The Lionesses”.

A period where England is a full-fledged candidate for every title in women’s football on the strength of a fully professional national league (FA WSL) backed by the deep pockets of famous English Premier League outfits. The likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City are heavily represented in the experienced English roster, and with that comes the realisation there’s no reason to acquiesce to anyone but the Queen. The English ladies are going for the European crown, full stop.

Qualification: Group 7 winners (7W, 1D)

Finals Appearances: Eight

Best Performance: Finalist (1984, 2009)

Head Coach: Mark Sampson (WAL)

Star Player: Karen Carney (Chelsea FC)

The Birmingham native is one of the longest serving players in the English roster since she prepares to take the field in a fourth European Championships, and it’s fair to say she never had so many good teammates to cooperate with.

England’s midfielder Karen Carney prepares to launch a long pass across the field

Usually deployed on the left side of the midfield, Carney perfectly personifies the gritty mentality the English love for her zeal looking to recover the ball, yet she also possesses the skill to manufacture offense in waves. Right footed, the Chelsea winger regularly strays from the flank to take her chances inside the opposing block, looking to disentangle defences with her trickery, propensity to play one-twos with the forwards and smart passing.

A bold, energetic style that betrays her old struggles with depression, an illness that almost put an end to her career precociously. England fans are certainly glad that story also took a turn for the best.

Player to watch: Jordan Nobbs (Arsenal FC)

Limited to a single appearance at the 2015 World Cup due to injury, the time has finally come for Jordan Nobbs, a former standout for England’s youth teams who has yet to shine in a major senior international competition.

A lithe midfielder of exquisite technique who loves to shoot from distance and play balls over the top, “Nobber” is utilized as a right midfielder by Mark Sampson so that she can overload central areas and expose her superior playmaking skills, which significantly boost the fluidity of England’s game in the final third.

Capable of lighting up a game with an extraordinary long-range howitzer or a superb assist, it’s time Jordan Nobbs’ name surfaces across the continent when mentioning the best midfielders around.

England’s Jordan Nobbs attempts to keep the ball in play

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): K. Bardsley; L. Bronze – S. Houghton (C) – M. Bright – D. Stokes; J. Nobbs – J. Moore – J. Scott– K. Carney; T. Duggan – E. White

The 4x4x2 is almost as ancestral as the sport in England, and Mark Sampson respectfully hasn’t deviated from it even if there’s a nuance worth mentioning.  Both Nobbs and Carney aren’t the usual line-hugging wingers and love to move inside, therefore the width is mainly provided by the overlapping runs of the full backs, especially the marauding Lucy Bronze.

Regarding the lineup, in comparison with the team that made history in Canada the fresh faces are center back Millie Bright (Chelsea) and midfielder Jade Moore (Reading), who seem to have usurped veterans Laura Bassett and Fara Williams, respectively. In attack, Toni Duggan is close to untouchable, but Ellen White faces a lot of competition from Jodie Taylor, Nikita Parris and diminutive Fran Kirby.

Spain

Verónica Boquete, “la Princesa del deporte rey” has been the flag bearer of Spain’s women’s football for close to a decade.

Verónica Boquete has scored more goals (38) than any other player in Spain’s national team history, including eight at the Euro 2017 qualification phase.

Verónica Boquete, elite level playmaker, played over 30 matches this season for Paris St. German, the UEFA Women’s Champions League Finalists.

Verónica Boquete, 30 years old, is still widely regarded as Spain’s best offensive player.

Verónica Boquete is NOT in Spain’s Euro 2017 roster for “performance”-related reasons, according to Coach Jorge Vilda. Incomprehensible.

Nonetheless, Vero or no Vero, Spain is a deep well of confidence following an imposing qualifying campaign, and there are expectations La Roja is finally ready to enter the conversation concerning Europe’s best teams.

After all, it would simply ride the example established a long time ago by their youth teams, perennial contenders at the U-17 and U-19 level, and more recently by the Spanish clubs, with each passing season gaining traction against their German, French, Swedish and English counterparts.

Qualification: Group 2 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (1997)

Head Coach: Jorge Vilda

Star Player: Verónica Boquete Irene Paredes (Paris St. Germain, FRA)

A mainstay of Spain’s backend for many seasons, Irene Paredes Hernández achieved a new level of recognition over the last two seasons by marshalling Athletic Bilbao to an unlikely Primera Division title in 2015-16, and following it up with a high profile move to Qatari-backed PSG.

Irene Paredes rallies her teammates during a World Cup qualifier in Italy

The 26-year-old went on to quickly pick up the reigns of the French defence, and performed at an admirable level on their campaign to the Champions League Final, displaying all the qualities of modern center backs: speed, agility, aerial prowess, assertiveness under pressure, and poise handling the ball and completing the first pass from the back.

Four years after scoring an own goal in Spain’s quarter-final affair at the Euro 2013, she will be looking for redemption with a national team hoping to build on the triumph at the 2017 Algarve Cup, a competition where Paredes was, not  incidentally, named “Best Player”.

Player to watch: Alexia Putellas (FC Barcelona)

After taking part in consecutive European Championships at the U-17 level, Alexia debuted for the senior team as a 19-year-old and in time to secure a place on the roster that would reach the last eight at the Euro 2013. Four years have passed since then, and her influence on Spain’s and Barcelona’s game still hasn’t stopped growing

A versatile left footer that is comfortable as an interior, winger or supporting forward, Alexia Putellas is one of Vilda’s favourites because she can either act as the main conduit of offense in the center of the park, or provide a dangerous presence out wide, curling balls into the area and attacking the far post. At age 23, and with three Spanish League titles on her résumé, one of the brightest faces of Spain’s ambitious generation is also the key to unlock new heights.

Spain’s midfielder Alexia Putellas (#21, white) has the guile to get out of difficult situations

Probable Lineup (3x5x2): S. Paños; I. Paredes – A. Pereira – M. Léon; M. Torrejón (C) – V. Losada – V. Torrecilla – A. Putellas – L. Ouahabi; J. Hermoso – O. Garcia

Jorge Vilda replaced long-time manager Ignacio Quereda after the fiasco at the 2015 World Cup, and he gradually introduced a backline of three to rip into the tactical DNA of a team that used to run a 4x3x3 or 4x2x3x1.

With more elements operating in central areas, the possession-based style was maintained, but the defensive record improved significantly, as Spain allowed just two goals in qualifying and scored 39. A testament to the progresses experienced by many players, including “carrilleras” Marta Torrejón and Leila Ouahabi, whose offensive propensity really shines in this system.

Without Vero Boquete, new Paris St. Germain recruit Jenifer Hermoso – who tallied 35 goals this season – is the major offensive catalyst, while the greatest dilemma is the identity of the starting goalkeeper. Lola Gallardo’s Atletico Madrid pipped Sandra Paños’ Barcelona for the Spanish title, but it’s the latter that seems to hold the inside lane in this race of 24-year-olds.

Scotland

If a very demanding draw and a quarrel between the players and the Scottish Football Association over compensation wasn’t already enough to cast a large cloud over Scotland’s perspectives at the Euro 2017, the last months of preparation brought an additional element: an injury-barrage that all but ends their chances of upstaging England and Spain for a place in the quarter-finals.

Forward Lizzie Arnott and defensemen Jennifer Beattie and Emma Mitchell, all prospective starters, were ruled out in the weeks leading up to the tournament, but those misfortunes fall short of the monumental problem that is the absence of 2016 BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year and Arsenal FC’s star playmaker Kim Little, who suffered an anterior cruciate knee ligament rupture in club training.

An untimely injury took Scotland’s star Kim Little out of the competition

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 1 (7W, 1D), inferior goal difference in tie with Iceland

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Anna Signeul (SWE)

Star Player: Lisa Evans (Bayern Munich, GER)

Without the talent of Kim Little at their disposal, Scotland will have to rely even more on the hardworking, resilient nature of most of their players, and there’s no better example to follow than winger Lisa Evans.

Even though she wasn’t blessed with the speed, creativity or flash of many positional counterparts, the 25-year-old has still been able to attract the interest of clubs such as Turbine Potsdam, Bayern Munich and Arsenal  FC because few can match her tactical awareness and willingness to sacrifice individual accolades for the better of the team. Feisty and diligent tracking down the flank, Evans hugs the line to provide width in attack, but can also dash towards the goal or surprise defenders with diagonal runs.

No doubts remain that Scotland will have to stand firm in the face of adversity and take advantage of every offensive transition. That’s where Evans’ versatility and stamina could prove essential.

Player to watch: Caroline Weir (Liverpool FC, ENG)

Caroline Weir proudly wears the No. 10 shirt for Liverpool FC, and such honour serves to bestow the potential of a player Scotland’s managers believe is able to pick up part of the slack left by Kim Little.

Caroline Weir is one of Scotland’s key midfielders

A gritty midfielder that always plays with her head up, Caroline Weir has the vision to deliver passes from afar to center forward Jane Ross or the wingers cutting inside, yet her true strength lies on the ability to slow the game down, hold the ball and wait for the play to develop in front of her eyes.

A feature that she’ll explore at the European Championships, since the 22-year-old is bound to operate a few meters closer to the goal, looking to support the lone forward and make the best of opportunities to hit from long range with her excellent left foot.

Probable Lineup (4x5x1): G. Fay (C); K. Smith – I. Dieke – V. Barsley – H. Lauder; L. Evans – L. Crichton – R. Corsie – C. Weir – Fi. Brown; J. Ross

Scotland’s usual formation is the 4x2x3x1, but against their rivals in Group D expect a much more compact 4x5x1, with striker Jane Ross left to her own luck and no clearly defined creative fulcrum filling the void of Little. The better they can do is deposit their hopes in Lisa Evans and Caroline Weir, who should have green light to take their chances offensively.

As for the other substitutes called to action, center back Vaila Barsley is the most promising. A recent discovery by Scotland’s staff, she’s been exceptional filling in for Jenn Beatie while club teammate Fiona Brown seems to have locked down the left midfield position on the strength of a series of impressive showings.

Portugal

Fifteen of the top seventeen ranked teams at the time of the qualifying group phase draw ended up securing qualification to the Euro 2017. Care to bet who wasn’t supposed to be here?

The Portuguese women, listed on Pot D (26th) but surprise runners-up in Group 2. They upset the Republic of Ireland and Finland (the only finalist in 2013 to miss out this time) to snatch a playoff spot, and then ousted Romania to reach the Finals.

Portuguese players celebrated an historic qualification to the Euro 2017 after defeating Romania

Home to the reigning men’s European Champions, this is a massive step for a country where women’s football has been nothing more than an afterthought outside of a few days every March, when they host a prestigious international tournament in the region of Algarve.

That being said, what’s a realistic target in Dutch soil? Escape alive against England and Spain, first and foremost, and try to squeeze something out of the match versus Scotland.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 2 (4W, 1D, 3L), 11 points behind Spain; defeated Romania in the playoff on away goals (1-1)

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Francisco Neto

Star Player: Cláudia Neto (Linköpings FC, SWE)

Portugal’s captain is their only World class player and, it turns out, also the inspirational leader. That much was plainly evident in qualification, when Cláudia Neto’s six goals rescued several crucial points to make the dream come true.

Key figure for Linköpings’s Damallsvenskan success last year, 2016 was truly a banner year for the 29-year-old midfielder, who does so much of the heavy lifting for this Portuguese team. Neto is a transitional force, carrying the ball up the field, a playmaker, recognizing passes others can’t, a pace-setter, a chance-creator and, finally, a goal scorer.

Cláudia Neto’s hat trick against Finland reinvigorated Portugal’s qualifying campaign

A facet instigated by Francisco Neto’s curious decision to slot his most important player as close to the other teams’ net as possible, wagering she could bury more opportunities than her colleagues would with the roles reversed. Until now, it has worked so well that Cláudia Neto is regularly nicknamed CN7, a cheeky comparison to a certain superstar footballer who happens to be a compatriot.

Player to watch: Diana Silva (Sporting CP)

The revelation of the Portuguese League in 2016-17 is expected to come off the bench at the tournament since Francisco Neto values experience to a tee, but be on the lookout for her disconcerting presence up front.

While undeniably raw on her movements and technical gestures, there’s an intriguing potential latent on Diana Silva, a striker that impresses for her quickness and mobility across the front end, yet isn’t afraid to work hard to get the ball back or enter in confrontation with the most rugged defensive players. Moreover, in possession, she can prove daunting to handle with time to accelerate, dribbling past the clumsiest opponents to set up her teammates or try to score.

At age 22, Diana Silva can still be considered a diamond in a rough, and an international career may be in the cards if she finds a way to make the most of her time in the Netherlands.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): Patrícia Morais; Matilde Fidalgo – Sílvia Rebelo – Carole Costa – Ana Borges; Dolores Silva, Vanessa Marques – Suzane Pires, Carolina Mendes; Ana Leite – Cláudia Neto (C);

In the most decisive of moments, the two-legged playoff with Romania, Portugal lined up on a 4x4x2 with a diamond-shaped midfield, and it’s possible things will remain that way for the final tournament in spite of a sharp rise in the quality of the opposition. However, a more rational option would be the return to a stingiest 4x2x3x1, with Cláudia Neto dropping back to partner defensive anchor Dolores Silva or, in alternative, holing up between the lines.

Portugal’s Dolores Silva jumps past the challenge of a Romanian player

Portugal’s main factor of disturbance is Ana Borges, a lightning quick winger adapted to the left back position who loves to charge up the field in possession. Meanwhile, Neto and Dolores Silva are the stalwarts of Portugal’s midfield and Ana Leite a mobile, German-educated forward that is a favourite of the coach.

The rest of the midfield and attack, though, is easily interchangeable, with the likes of Mélissa Antunes, Fátima Pinto, Amanda da Costa, Laura Luís and Diana Silva hunting down an opportunity to start.

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group C

Headlined by one of the main candidates to the title, Group C is the most interesting of the preliminary stage because every team can realistically entertain the idea of advancing.

If everything goes according to plan, France should casually stroll to the next round and leave Switzerland, Iceland and Austria to discuss the other ticket, with the Swiss edging their rivals in individual talent, Iceland counting on being the only side to have participated in the competition previously, and Austria believing their core group of Germany-based players can carry the mail and overachieve.

France

Will Les Bleues finally get over the hump?  On paper, France is blessed with the strongest squad in the competition – next to Germany – but over the last international competitions they’ve repeatedly been stopped in the knockout rounds (QFs at the 2013 Euro, 2015 WC and 2016 Olympics) and underperformed significantly to the dismay of their fans.

Populated by Olympique Lyon and Paris St. Germain players’, the Finalists of this years’ Champions League, it’s more than time the French put it all together and topple Germany and the rest of the field to win a maiden international trophy. If they miss the mark again, tensions will escalate to unbearable highs ahead of the 2019 World Cup, which France will host.

Qualification: Group 3 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Sixth

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Olivier Echouafni

Star Player: Amandine Henry (Portland Thorns, USA)

The 27-year-old Henry is probably the finest defensive midfielder in women’s football these days due to her blend of controlled aggression, vision, passing range and poise in possession.

Amandine Henry, the outstanding “milieu du terrain” for France

Initiating the transition from the space usually destined to the defensive anchor, the French midfielder is able to impact the game in several areas, breaking lines with her elegant strides, picking up both long and short passes, initiating the press high up the pitch or tackling with aplomb. Moreover, her all-around brilliance shines even more when she can seamlessly swap roles with long time midfield partner Camille Abily, with whom she played for 9 seasons at Lyon to incredible success.

Awarded the Silver Ball for the second best player of the 2015 World Cup, Henry embraced a new challenge last year, traveling overseas to represent the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, but she’s still well versed on the style and tendencies of most of her French teammates, who surely breathe better knowing the midfielder is shielding their back.

Player to watch: Sakina Karchaoui (Montpellier HSC)

A surprise late call up for the French team that played at the 2016 Olympic Games, Sakina Karchaoui is rapidly becoming an important member of Les Bleues as a result of a series of solid defensive performances in high-stake matches.

The 21-year-old ascended the youth ranks as an offensive midfielder, but transformed into a left back at the end of her academy days in Montpellier and the decision is paying off big time. Speedy, athletic and aggressive, Karchaoui displays good defensive instincts, but what sets her apart is the effusive disposition and the energetic runs up and down the flank which usually end up with venomous crosses towards the box. Those are qualities that don’t proliferate in women’s football, much less in quality full backs, and therefore the Franco-Moroccan will be one of the hot properties to monitor over the next few seasons.

Twenty-one-year-old Sakina Karchaoui is one of the new faces of Team France

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): S. Bouhaddi; J. Houara – G. Mbock Bathy – W. Renard (C) – S. Karchaoui; A. Henry – C. Abily; E. Thomis – G. Thiney – C. Lavogez ; E. Le Sommer

The 4x2x3x1 has been France’s staple for many years and in Dutch soil that’s bound to continue, yet Olivier Echouafni isn’t short in personnel to change the mix if things get stale. Particularly the midfield’s offensive trio, which has been under the spotlight following Louisa Necib’s retirement after Rio and Amel Majri’s ankle injury.

To wit, speedster Elodie Thomis will have to watch her shadow in youngster Kadidiatou Diani, and expected left winger Claire Lavogez is far from untouchable, while Gaëtane Thiney could be squeezed out by the reallocation of forward Eugénie Le Sommer to the creation zone.

Moreover, striker Marie-Laure Delie is also bound to receive an opportunity to get going, with a slight tweak to the system possibly in the cards, leading to the implementation of the 4x3x3 and the introduction of a third central midfielder in veteran Élise Boussaglia or 20-year-old portent Onema Geyoro.

Switzerland

Two years after hurdling past the group stage at the 2015 World Cup, the Swiss make their first appearance at the European Championships to provide a stark contrast with the other debutants, who will be more than satisfied with an honourable exit from the tournament.

A level of ambition justified by a perfect qualifying campaign, where they won all eight matches, and the presence of a handful of world-class performers in their ranks. While far from title contenders, Switzerland has the goods to upset any team in the tournament on a good day, and therefore the quarter-finals are the minimal requirement.

Qualification: Group 6 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Martina Voss-Tecklenburg (GER)

Star Player: Ramona Bachmann (Chelsea FC, ENG)

Standing at a stocky 162cm, Ramona Bachmann doesn’t immediately radiate the aura of terrific football player, but you just need to wait until she gets going to realize the dynamic skill set and ability to pick defences apart. The 26-year-old Swiss zips around the pitch with and without the ball, making good use of her low center of gravity, and backs down defences with her dribbling ability, which opens up terrain in the final third for teammates to operate.

Ramona Bachmann scored an hat-trick against Equador at the 2015 World Cup, and will be looking for more during her Euro debut

With the characteristics of a winger, she’s primarily used as a nomadic forward or a false striker with Switzerland, exploring spaces between defenders with diagonal runs and overloading half spaces, but the 42 goals in 80 international caps certify the ability to finish is also there. After all, there has to be a reason Bachmann turned professional at age 16 and over the last ten years has represented top clubs in four different countries (Sweden, USA, Germany and England).

Player to watch: Lia Wälti (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

A diminutive midfielder that coordinates Switzerland’s play at the center of the park, Lia Wälti’s game is one that relies on intelligence and flawless, yet understated, technique.

Acting as the outlet at the start of the Swiss buildup, she distributes the ball with both feet and tremendous poise and accuracy, playing at one or two touches to accelerate but also controlling the pace when necessary. In addition, defensively Wälti is able to overcome the lack of size and strength with non-stop activity and positioning.

You can make a case that the 24-year-old is the silent mechanism that makes Switzerland’s machine run swiftly and on time, and that’s worth appreciating even if all the sparkle is provided by others.

Lia Wälti performs the unsavory tasks necessary to carry Switzerland to new heights

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): G. Thalmann; A. Crnogorčević – C. Abbé (C ) – R. Kiwic – N. Maritz; E. Aigbogun – L. Wälti – M. Moser – L. Dickenmann; F. Humm – R. Bachmann

Martina Voss -Tecklenburg’s team plays a direct, fast and attacking style of play that appeases onlookers but concurrently contributes to some tactical anarchy, with the four attacking players regularly exchanging positions and getting caught in transition. The role of veteran Lara Dickenmann is thus essential, since she’s the one responsible for curbing the offensive impetus and organizing support to the two central midfielders. In alternative, the introduction of Vanessa Bernauer in substitution of Fabienne Humm or Eseosa Aigbogun could similarly help tone down some riskier tendencies.

Conversely, if Switzerland is chasing the score, loosening the grip on Ana-Maria Crnogorčevic is the solution to adopt as she’s clamouring for a more prominent role in offense since being incomprehensively adapted to a full back position, hence quashing an element that scored seven times during the qualifying phase.

Iceland

On their third consecutive appearance at the European Championships, Iceland will try to mirror the result of 2013, when they advanced past the group stage before succumbing to hosts Sweden.

Similarly to the men’s team that captivated the continent last summer, the Icelanders have been growing their profile in the women’s game over the last few seasons, and much is owed to their all-time top scorer, Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir, who unfortunately won’t play in the competition after rupturing the cruciate ligament on her knee a few weeks ago. A massive blow that can make all the difference between progressing or heading home early.

Qualification: Group 1 winners (7W, 1L)

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Quarter-Finals (2013)

Head coach: Freyr Alexandersson

Star Player: Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir is a workhorse in Iceland’s midfield

By assuming the team captaincy in 2014 on the heels of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir’s pregnancy, Sara Björk further increased her influence inside an Icelandic group that paces at the rhythm of its midfield heartbeat.

Armband draped on her arm, the 26-year-old does a bit of everything for her national team, directing traffic and her teammates, covering for positional mishaps, claiming the ball from defenders to start the transition and setting the example with her enduring predisposition to run.

Astute decision making, many rungs above her teammates, completes the description and clearly demarks why Gunnarsdóttir is the rare player on the roster to feature regularly for a top-level European club.

In her case, German double winners Wolfsburg, the team she chose to represent in 2016 after five seasons and four national titles amassed with Sweden’s FC Rosengård.

Player to watch: Elín Jensen (Valur)

Elín Metta Jensen can be considered a special case in Iceland’s squad, and not just because her name is much easier to scribble than the vast majority of her teammates’.

For instance, despite her youth, the 22-year-old has already participated in the tournament before, called up in 2013 after notching 18 goals in 18 games to pace the 2012 Icelandic League as a teenager. Moreover, her propensity for taking defenders off the dribble and individualize actions shocks with Iceland’s “Team first” battle cry, and that may be the chief reason behind her struggles to consistently break into the starting lineup over the years.

Maybe it will finally happen in Dutch soil, probably not in a center forward role but on the wing, where Elín Jensen can offer a jolt of offensive talent to turn around matches going the wrong way.

Probable Lineup (3x4x3): G. Gunnarsdóttir; G. Viggósdóttir – S. Atladóttir – A. Kristjánsdóttir; R. Hönnudóttir – D. Brynjarsdóttir – S. Gunnarsdóttir (C) – H. Gísladóttir; F. Friðriksdóttir – K. Ásbjörnsdóttir – H. Magnúsdóttir

After surging through qualifying on a 4x2x3x1 formation that sometimes versed a 4x3x3, the loss of Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir instigated a drastic change of tactical structure, with Freyr Alexandersson expected to take his chances in matchday one against France with a 3x4x3 that defensively will very much resemble a 5x3x2/5x2x3.

The loss of influentional forward Margrét Lára Vidarsdóttir (#9) changes everything for Iceland

Due to the new-fangled nature of this system, it’s still not clear where everyone will slot, especially up front, but in this projection I elected experience: from Dagný Brynjarsdóttir being hailed as the partner to Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir in the middle, to 32-year-old Hólmfríður Magnúsdóttir as the final piece of the forward trio alongside Fanndís Friðriksdóttir and the mobile Katrín Asbjornsdottir, who is expected to unseat qualifying joint-top scorer Harpa Thorsteinsdóttir.

Meanwhile, on defence, Sif Atladóttir is the main beneficiary of the extra center back position, and as a reward she brings with her a singular weapon Iceland will rely heavily on: the ability to propel the ball into the goal area from free throws, generating cheap opportunities to incite mayhem in front of the net.

Austria

Until a recent 4-2 home triumph over Denmark, It had been more than 3 years since Austria last defeated one of the other 15 participants at the Euro 2017, and that speaks volumes to the task ahead of Dominik Thalhammer’s women in this tournament.

On the contrary, in qualification the Austrians lost narrowly at home to Norway only to snatch a 2-2 tie away, while a look at their roster reveals six players that pontificate in top-four Frauen-Bundesliga outfits. It’s fair to say Switzerland and Iceland should underestimate the Austrians at their own peril.

Austria’s qualification for the Euro 2017 is the first in their women’s football history

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 8 (5W, 2D, 1 L), five points behind Norway

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Head Coach: Dominik Thalhammer

Star Player: Nina Burger (SC Sand, GER)

Top scorer of the Austrian League in six consecutive seasons from 2006 to 2012, Nina Burger was forced to take her talents abroad when things got too easy at home. She first landed in the USA before eventually returning to Europe to represent SC Sand, where she tallied 15 goals over two seasons.

That’s an unimpressive total that we can probably chalk up to her unusual style of play. Far from a complete striker, Burger is, instead, more of an old-school poacher, someone that sticks to her high position, lays claim to lose balls in the area and aims for the net at every opportunity.

A limited skill set that is still incredibly valuable for the Austrian national team, since the five goals she notched in qualifying helped secure the ticket to the Netherlands and cemented her status as the country’s top scorer of all-time. Now, time to beef up those numbers at the biggest stage she’s ever been.

Player to watch: Sarah Zadrazil (1. FFC Turbine Potsdam, GER)

Despite wearing the No. 9 shirt for Austria, Sarah Zadrazil is far from a major scoring threat in the pitch. In fact, the 24-year-old would match up far better with the No.8, the numerical digit usually associated with the box-to-box midfielder, the function she carries out to great lengths alongside Freiburg’s Sarah Puntingan.

Austria’s Sarah Zadrazil tries to break an English attack during an international friendly match

Industrious, unrelenting and highly reactive to lose balls, Zadrazil keeps Austria permanently prepared for the defensive transition, and any team could use a responsible player like that, which is why Turbine Potsdam coveted her services after a three-year spell playing college soccer at the United States.

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): M. Zinsberger; K. Schiechtl– C. Wenninger –  V. Schnaderbeck (C ) – S. Maierhofer; S. Puntingam – S. Zadrazil; L. Feiersinger – N. Billa – V. Aschauer; N. Burger

The positioning of Nicole Billa is the key element of Austria’s set up, as the Hoffenheim player can drop back to form a trio in midfield with Zadrazil and Puntingan (4x3x3), execute between the lines (the 4x2x3x1), or take a few steps forward to supplement Burger inside the goal area.

Either way, much is asked of wingers Laura Feiersinger and Verena Aschauer (both SC Sand players), who regularly rush up and down the corridor to assist the defence and necessarily tire out by the middle of the second half. The 26-year-old Nadine Prohaska is then called to action to replace one, while the other toughs it out, since depth is an issue for Austria at this level.

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group B

Germany and Sweden are two of just three teams (Norway) to have won the Women’s European Championships and having been drawn into the same group are naturally prohibitive favourites to reach the Quarter-Finals. Conversely, Russia and Italy were once sides to take into account at the continental stage but are currently undergoing transitional periods that should hinder any possible challenge. Pretty straightforward, but there’s a reason they play the games…

Germany

For the past 22 years, the Germans have been the defending European Champions and there’s an excellent chance they’re going to extend their incredible run for a few more seasons despite missing many vital components of their Gold Medal winning team at the 2016 Olympic Games.

In fact, Annike Krahn, Saskia Bartusiak and Melanie Behringer retired from international football, Simone Laudehr and the multifaceted Alexandra Popp didn’t make the trip east due to injury, while head coach Silvia Neid stepped down after Rio, concluding a decorated 11-year stint behind the bench to cede the scene to former defender Steffi Jones. Nonetheless, even with such personnel turnover, Germany is still the odds-on candidate to lift the trophy.

Qualification: Group 5 winners (8W)

Finals Appearances: Tenth

Best Performance: Champions (1989, 1991, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2013)

Head Coach: Steffi Jones

Star Player: Dzsenifer Marozsán (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

The captain of Die Nationalelf has gradually established herself as the most impactful offensive midfielder in women’s football and, at age 25, the best is probably still ahead.

Germany’s captain Dzsenifer Marozsán in action during a friendly against Canada

Strongly built, exceptional in possession, masterful at controlling the rhythms of the game and changing the point of attack, the Hungarian roots of Marozsán help explain how she is football elegance personified in the way she drives forward with the ball at her feet, eyes surveying the scene before streamlining any kind of pass or shooting accurately at goal.

Wildly successful at every age category with the German national teams, her move from FFC Frankfurt to Lyon in 2016 has not only delivered the trophies she was missing at the club level, but further enhanced her overall skill set and tactical nous. So much that she’s now asked to play deeper on the field and render tasks that shouldn’t be hers. Germany would do good to not forget Maestro Marozsán is at her best free of defensive shackles, and her talent is ours to indulge on.

Player to watch: Lina Magull (SC Freiburg)

A shrewd two-year loan stint at SC Freiburg did wonders for the development of this right footed winger of immense technical resources and unexpectedly the 22-year-old arrives in the Netherlands as a probable starter for the mighty female Mannschaft.

Coming in at just 165cm tall, Lina Magull utilizes her nifty ball control to drift from the left side and invade central areas, engage defenders or provide weighted through balls that consistently push her team closer to the goal. No surprise then that after carrying modest Freiburg to surprise title contention, the Dortmund-native will return to Wolfsburg in the fall and try to leave her mark in its collection of stars. But before that, she’ll perform in front of the European audience for the first time.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): A. Schult; A. Blässe – J. Henning – B. Peter – I. Kerschowski; L. Maier – S. Däbritz – D. Marozsán (C) – L. Magull; S. Huth – A. Mittag

Regardless of Steffi Jones’ decision to structure her midfield quartet as a line stretching across the field or a narrow rhomb, Germany’s Achilles heel and major concern is the deep-lying midfield position, especially with Lena Goeßling’s lack of match fitness in 2016-17.

Sara Däbritz (#13), Tabea Kemme (#22) and Dzsenifer Marozsán (left) are in the conversation to take part of Germany’s midfield

In a curious and slightly desperate resolution, forward Alex Popp was tested there in a few preparatory matches due to her innate aggressiveness on the ball, but the Wolfsburg player picked up an injury and Germany will have to keep improvising. In the last friendly before the Euro, 22-year-old Sara Däbritz got the call to partner Marozsán, but don’t be surprised if Goeßling, central defender Kristin Demann or the adaptable Tabea Kemme also get their crack at establishing a presence. One thing is for certain, though: Marozsán, Magull and any player that finds her way into the midfield mix will have to help paper the gaps since the job will necessarily be done by commitment.

Sweden

Beaten by Germany at the 2016 Olympic Final and previously booted out of the 2015 World Cup and their “own” Euro 2013 by the same opponent, Sweden will certainly be eager to exert a bit of revenge when the two heavyweights face off in matchday one, but the Scandinavians shouldn’t lose focus of their main goal.

The Swedes know most central figures of their squad are getting up there in age and charismatic coach Pia Sundhage is about to leave, so this is a crucial and probably final opportunity to pick up a title before they’re forced to reload with younger players.

Qualification: Group 4 winners (7W 1L)

Finals Appearances: Tenth

Best Performance: Champions (1984)

Head Coach: Pia Sundhage

Star Player: Caroline Seger (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

Sweden’s skipper may be slowing down, as her regular presences on the bench of Lyon during the 2016-17 season indicate, but Caroline Seger is still as essential as ever for a national team she represented in over 170 occasions.

Swedish captain Caroline Seger pushes the ball forward during a match against Finland

Renowned for her positioning, stamina and passing range, the 32-year-old has commanded the ball in the Swedish midfield for many years by being frequently involved in the buildup and successively engaged in 50-50 disputes. Moreover, her ball distribution skills eventually lead to perfectly timed runs to the box, where she regularly meets crosses or balls whipped in from set pieces to spread the panic on opposing defences.

As a rare, natural midfield general, Seger will be dearly missed, but maybe this last-ditch effort can land an elusive piece of silverware 12 years in the making.

Player to watch: Fridolina Rolfö (Bayern Munich, GER)

The 23-year-old traded Swedish Champions Linköpings FC for Bayern Munich at the beginning of the year and ended up failing to find the back of the net for the rest of the campaign, however there’s still a lot to like about the young striker and the role she can play for Sweden in the near future.

Tall and elegant in the mould of Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, Rolfö possesses a left foot that thumps the ball and makes an effort to meander outside the box, yet she’s clearly not comfortable getting open to combine with teammates and exploring the space between and behind defenders at this stage of her development.

The rangy forward can’t reproduce Lotta Schelin’s clever movement off the ball nor the brute strength of Stina Blackstenius, and that should cost her a starting spot, but don’t discount the impact Rolfö could have off the bench.

Fridolina Rolfö impressed at the 2016 Olympic tournament and once again will be at the disposal of Sweden’s manager.

Probable Lineup (4x3x3): H. Lindahl; J. Samuelsson – N. Fischer – L. Sembrant – J. Andersson; L. Dahlkvist, C. Seger (C) – E. Rubensson; K. Asllani – S. Blackstenius – L. Schelin

Pia Sundhage has given the 4x4x2 extensive practice, prodding two out-and-out wingers serving a pair of strikers, but at the tournament she should reverse back into the battle-tested 4x3x3, which eases the burden on veteran midfielders Lisa Dahlkvist and Caroline Seger but in opposition pulls Lotta Schelin away from the net and onto the flank.

This is precisely where the injury to Montpellier’s Sofia Jakobsson would hurt were it not for the existence of a wildcard in Olivia Schough, a masterful set piece taker that lends options tactically. The 26-year-old can seize one of the wings, benching Blackstenius (or Schelin) in the process, or roll as a playmaker, potentially shunning Elin Rubensson.

Italy

Despite tying Norway for the record-number of appearances at the European Championships, it’s telling that the two-time Finalists arrive in the Netherlands under a shroud of doubts about their ability to keep alive their 32-year streak of last eight finishes at the event.

Soundly toppled by Switzerland in qualifying, Italy’s hopes were seriously jeopardized when playmaker Alice Parisi broke her leg during a friendly match in England, and therefore few contemplate more than a lone victory over Russia in the opening confront of Group B.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 6 (6 W, 2L), 6 pts behind Switzerland

Appearances: Eleventh

Best Performance: Finalists (1993, 1997)

Head Coach: Antonio Cabrini

Star Player: Ilaria Mauro (Fiorentina FC)

An imposing striker that seems custom made for Italy’s style of play by being able to hold the ball while their block moves up, turn towards the goal or associate with teammates, Ilaria Mauro will play a central role for her country at the Euro 2017.

Italy’s Ilaria Mauro battles with Sweden’s Nilla Fischer during a group stage match at the Euro 2013. The pair will clash again in matchday 3.

Before returning to the Women’s Serie A, where she tallied 16 times on Fiorentina’s maiden title campaign, Mauro spent three seasons in Germany and she might want to tap on those memories for self-motivation, since the markswoman isn’t bound to enjoy many opportunities to shine in the Netherlands. Still, the 29-year-old forward and partner Cristiana Girelli combined for 11 goals during the qualification round, and hitting a mere fraction of that total could make a big difference at this tournament.

Player to watch: Manuela Giugliano (AGSM Verona)

The 19-year-old Giugliano is the most dynamic young player in Italy and the natural successor to Melania Gabbiadini, the legendary 33-year-old veteran forward that should represent the Azzure for the final time in the Netherlands.

A “trequartista” with pace and boundless skill, Giugliano scored 15 goals and terrorized defenders as a teenager for Verona in 2016-17, yet that shouldn’t be enough to guarantee a position amongst Antonio Cabrini’s first options. Her time to shine will come one day though, and a few glimpses of raw potential may already be discerned if she touches the field at the Euro 2017.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): L. Giuliani; S. Gama – C. Salvai – E. Linari – E. Bartoli; A. Guagni – D. Stracchi – M. Rosucci – B. Bonansea; C. Girelli – I. Mauro

Significantly less dangerous than their male counterparts but equally disciplined tactically, don’t expect the Azzurre to deviate from their rigid 4x4x2 edifice, with Mauro and Girelli battling up front to forge something out of nothing and two banks of four holding the forth.

Defensive midfielder Daniela Stracchi is an indispensable part of Italy’s lineup

The 25-year-old Martina Rosucci, who recently returned from a long-term injury spell, should slot into the starting eleven to cover for Parisi’s absence, while Melania Gabbiadini and Daniela Sabatini will regularly come off the bench to replace Mauro and Girelli as soon as they give away signs of fatigue.

Russia

Russia hasn’t gone past the group stage on their four appearances at the European Championships, and they face an uphill battle to change course with the quality of competition in Group B. Particularly since Elena Fomina sponsored a dramatic roster shakeup over the last few months, relegating many veterans that have carried the water for years, and tossing youngsters with limited international experience to the wolves.

Members of Russia’s women’s national team will try to avoid the outcome of every previous appearance at the European Championships: an early exit.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 5 (4 W, 2 D, 2L), 10 points behind Germany

Finals Appearances: Fifth

Best Performance: Quarter-finals (1993, 1995)

Head Coach: Elena Fomina

Star Player: Elena Danilova (FK VDV Ryazan)

Leading figure in the 2005 Under-19 National team that brought Russia its first European title at any level of women’s football, Elena Danilova’s development didn’t unfold as expected with several bouts of injuries and inconsistent performances stalling a career entirely spent in the domestic leagues.

At age 30, the gifted forward gets back into the spotlight as the most talented and unpredictable player in the squad that will attack the Euro 2017, and if she remains engaged and mentally prepared to withstand large periods of time without feeling the ball, Danilova’s flair and proficiency in front of the goal could eventually power Russia past the most positive forecasts.

Player to watch: Margarita Chernomyrdina (FC Chertanovo)

The 21-year-old midfielder promises to assume an important role for Russia as the main link between a packed midfield sector and lone forward Elena Danilova.

Adroit with both feet, Chernomyrdina is capable of carrying the ball up the field and reach the edge of the box in good conditions to threaten the goal, yet she impresses the most for her intensity and predisposition to press opponents. Such urgency sometimes turns into recklessness when she gets too aggressive and concedes free kicks in dangerous positions, nevertheless that’s nothing that can’t get sorted out with time.

Russia’s Margarita Chernomyrdina (#20) fights for possession of the ball during an international friendly match against the USA.

Probable Lineup (4x4x1x1): T. Shcherbak ; T. Sheikina – E. Morozova – A. Kozhnikova – E. Ziyastinova; ; N. Smirnova – D. Makarenko – A. Cholovyaga – E. Sochneva; M. Chernomyrdina; E. Danilova

With so many players dropping out over the last few months, including goaltender Elvira Todua, right back Ekaterina Dmitrenko, center back Ksenia Tsybutovich and former captain Elena Terekhova, predicting the exact Russian lineup is a gamble, yet the overarching tactical approach shouldn’t vary, with nine field players (4+4+1) invested in defensive duties and the lone forward ostracized until the ball is recovered.

The Plan B, to execute in case Russia needs to catch up on the score, is also quite simple: swap one of the midfielders for a second forward (Nadezhda Karpova or Ekaterina Pantyukhina) and lean back to discover whether they can work some magic.

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group A

Far removed from the glitz and exuberant displays of patriotism that envelop the continent every four years for occasion of the men’s European Championship, the UEFA Women’s Euro is, nonetheless, a tournament attaining important recognition in international football’s calendar by taking advantage of the odd offseason missing major men’s events.

In 2017, for the first time, the competition will feature 16 nations – divided in four groups of four -, essentially doubling the total of participants from 12 years ago, and therefore it will function as another crucial barometer on the evolution and competitiveness of the women’s game at the highest ranks. Since almost a third (5) of the field makes its first ever appearance, UEFA hopes to avoid the watered-down version of play we were all offered during the preliminary stage of the 2016 Men’s European Championship, also recently revamped to accommodate more teams, and if someone manages to topple Germany, winners of the last six editions, the better.

However, regardless of a few one-side encounters that are bound to happen, the Netherlands and its seven host cities (Breda, Deventer, Doetinchem, Enschede, Rotterdam, Tilburg and Utrecht) will enjoy the talents of a cohort of superb footballers whose exploits will be broadcasted to football fans everywhere for the next three weeks.

An imperial German side has emerged victorious from every Women’s European Championships since 1995

A group of female athletes and teams you should definitely get to know, and that’s what this series of blog posts is about, as I spent a few dozens of hours researching, canvassing through game reports and watching games to compile this sweeping guide of the competition.

Group by group, I aimed to portrait every national team in the competition, providing some background information and clarity on their pre-tournament objectives, profiling two elements of each squad, their most emblematic performer and a player to watch (you’ll notice I took a broad approach in the definition of this item), and glancing at their tactical set up and plausible formation.

Finally, a quick reference before we make it through the 16 contestants: I won’t pretend to pass by an avid women’s football enthusiast or a profound connoisseur, yet I have followed my fair share of women’s tournaments and deem myself qualified to do this work and hopefully help inform those looking to dive headfirst into the female game and its multiple charms.

Herewith, time to get started. After all, they say you should never leave a lady waiting.

Group A

Encompassing the host nation, a rising influence in the women’s game, and a traditional powerhouse in Norway, Group A boasts clear-cut favourites for the two spots that give access to the quarterfinals, yet don’t sleep on an experienced and well-drilled Danish team, surprise semi-finalists in 2013. Debutants Belgium are outcasts in this skirmish and likely limited to fighting to collect a first point at a major international competition.

Netherlands

Unexpected third-place finishers in their first appearance at a major meeting, the Euro 2009, the female “Oranje” is just now starting to reap the benefits of that landmark achievement. Having advanced past the group phase at the 2015 World Cup, the Netherlands should be considered a sleeper pick for the European crown by virtue of possessing an interesting crop of young, complementary offensive weapons and expectations of flourishing performances backed up by a football-mad nation. The Dutch population has already sold out all of the hosts’ group stage matches, and there’s no better incentive to instigate the ultimate dream.

Qualification: Host Nation

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (2009)

Coach: Sarina Wiegman

Star Player: Vivianne Miedema (FC Bayern Munich, GER)

With 41 goals amassed in just 51 senior caps, Miedema is already just 18 shy of Manon Melis’ top-scoring record for the women’s National team and she’s about to turn…21 years old, believe it or not.

Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema gets ready to celebrate after another goal for her country

Always a precocious goal scoring machine, the Hoogeveen-native made her first appearance on the Dutch League at age 15, tallied an astonishing 41 times in 26 games for Heerenveen in 2013/14, and consequently earned a move to German giants Bayern Munich, which proved decisive to add other dimensions to her game.

As she’s far from an imposing presence in the box, the lanky Miedema relies on smarts to find spaces to shoot since it takes her time to accelerate and the first touch is a work in progress. Shortcomings that slowed her prolific rate when she faced stiffer competition at the Frauen Bundesliga over the last three seasons, but ultimately wouldn’t suppress her superior killer instinct (35 goals in 61 league games).

After conquering two German Championships in three seasons, Miedema will join Arsenal FC for 2017-18, but before she lands in London, the hosts will need a full demonstration of her array of talents filling the net in order to summon an historic campaign.

Player to watch: Lieke Martens (FC Rosengård, SWE)

An important component of the Netherlands’ squad since 2011, the 24-year-old Martens can cement her status as a top-notch player with a cracking performance at the Euro 2017 ahead of her impeding move to FC Barcelona.

An exciting offensive midfielder blessed with quick feet and a dazzling ability to change directions and speed, Martens can slice defences with through balls soliciting the wingers or Miedema, and she’s also a headache for any full-back when cradling the ball close to the left sideline, jumping into the one-on-one or invading interior spaces to triangulate and pounce with the right foot. For all of these, I’m certain you won’t miss her as she powers the Netherlands’s offense at home this summer.

Netherlands’ Lieke Martens traverses an English roadblock

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): L. Geurts; D. van Lunteren – A. Dekker – M. van den Berg – K. van Es; S. Spitse – J. Groenen; S. van de Sanden – L. Martens – D. van de Donk; V. Miedema (C)

For some time the Netherlands has played in a defined 4x2x3x1 with Martens having license to roam behind Miedema and combine with England-based wingers Shanice van de Sande (Liverpool) and Daniëlle van de Donk (Arsenal), yet the injury to central midfielder Tessel Middag (Manchester City) and the emergence of Jill Roord (who recently agreed to join Bayern Munich) may have altered the plans of Wiegman for the middle of the park.

The Dutch have dabbled with a standard 4x3x3 recently, grouping Groenen, Roord and the cerebral van de Donk to improve ball retention in the midfield while Martens gets pushed to the left flank. An option for more balance that can pay dividends in the latter stages of the tournament.

Norway

Besides Germany, Norway is the only other nation to have won the European Championships, World Cup and Olympic tournament, yet their status as a heavyweight of the women’s game has been slipping for a few years since they’ve failed to reach the last four at the world scale in the last decade.

Still, they’ve consistently delivered at the Euros, reaching two finals and two semifinals since 2001, and the same is expected this year, especially as the spectrum of the 2013 Final – when they had two penalties denied by German goaltender Nadine Angerer – still looms. In the four years since, the Norwegian endured a tough renovation, with long-time stalwarts like Solveig Gulbrandsen, Ingvild Stensland and Trine Rønning hanging their boots, and the pressure is now squarely on the shoulders of two players who were just 18 years old the last time around.

Qualification: Group 8 winners (7W, 1D)

Finals Appearance: Eleventh

Best Performance: Champions (1987, 1993)

Coach: Martin Sjögren (SWE)

Star Player: Ada Hegerberg (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

The reigning UEFA Best Women’s Player in Europe was already a star in the making when she spearheaded Norway’s attack at the 2013 Euro and, in the meantime, she evolved into, arguably, the most feared striker in Europe. Particularly since her 2014 transfer from Turbine Potsdam to Olympique Lyon, with Hegerberg’s goal-scoring exploits (112 goals in just 97 games) being the tip of the French buzzsaw and the main reason her résumé swelled considerably to now include, for example, two Champions League titles (2016 and 2017).

Ada Hegerberg points the direction of sucess to Norway

Powerful and robust, Hegerberg is a smiling assassin in the box with a knack for finding the ball in premium positions, yet she’s been steadily refining her balance, agility and technique to further improve her play outside the area, where she now uses the body to shield opponents off the ball and connect with colleagues.

Those characteristics will be essential for a Norwegian squad that isn’t exactly suited to dominate possession and play with a high line like most favourites, and if Hegerberg can still lead them on a deep run, she immediately jumps to the front of the pack regarding the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.

Player to watch: Caroline Graham Hansen (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Absolutely ravaged by injuries since her breakout performance as a teenager at the 2013 edition, Caroline Hansen will be trying to make up for lost time as the hand to Ada Hegerberg’s blade in Dutch land.

An electrifying, free-spirited talent that demolishes defenders in direct confrontation, at his best Hansen is virtually unmatched in women’s football for her ability to sprint with the ball down the flank, break lines in possession and craft deadly passes to put teammates in front of the goal.

Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen leaves an opponent in the dust in this match against Spain

She’ll have carte blanche to wander all over the final third and opponents would be wise to never lose sight of the skinny No.10 with “Graham” plastered on the back of the jersey. As would every spectator, since she’s that good and incredibly fun to watch.

Probable Lineup (4x3x1x2): I. Hjelmseth, I. Wold – M. Mjelde (C) – N. Holstad Berge – E. Thorsnes; I.  Schjelderup – I. Spord –Andr. Hegerberg; C. Hansen; A. Hegerberg – K. Minde

Norway’s nominal set up is the 4x3x1x2, with Hansen free to roam behind two strikers, but without the ball Martin Sjögren demands they shift to a 4x4x2, with Minde (or Emilie Haavi) dropping back to complete the line of four in the midfield and Hansen joining Hegerberg to form a two-person unit pressing the opponents up top.

This option is partially explained by a relative distrust in the elements manning the operations in the halfway line, which lack seasoning at the international level. None of Schjelderup (29 years old), Spord (23), Andrine Hegerberg (Ada’s big sister, 24), Anja Sønstevold (25), Guro Reiten (22) or Frida Maanum (17) has collected more than 25 international caps and therefore, on occasion, Sjögren may advance captain Maren Mjelde and slot Maria Thorisdottir as a center-back.

Denmark

After going all the way to the brink of the final four years ago in spite of failing to record a single triumph in Sweden, Denmark will conceivably need to wring more out of their group to emulate that run in 2017.

The Danes will have their work cut out trying to deceive the Netherlands and/or Norway, but they certainly won’t fizzle due to a shortage of international experience. The Danish roster comprises plenty of returnees that are expected to assume large roles, and no player expected to start in their crucial tournament opener versus Belgium is under 24 years old.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 4 (6W, 1D, 1L), 2 pts behind Sweden

Finals Appearance: Ninth

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (1984, 2001, 2013)

Coach: Nils Nielsen

Star Player: Pernille Mosegaard-Harder (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Denmark’s Pernille Harder makes a run

The Danish captain found another gear in 2015, when 17 goals in 22 games merited the distinction as MVP of the Swedish League, the Damallsvenskan, and she hasn’t looked back since then on her way to become one of the most complete forwards in women’s football and the precious touchstone of Denmark’s national team.

An elusive player that can dodge defenders with deft touches and play in tight spaces, Harder likes to drop back to create and explore the vacant spots between the lines, but she’s also a clinical finisher with a sharp right foot that is a serious threat from set pieces.

After vaulting Linköping to the Swedish title in 2016 on the back of 24 strikes, Harder filled calls from every top club in the World and eventually chose to sign with Wolfsburg in January 2017, providing the final ingredient on their successful attempt to recapture the German Championship. She now has the responsibility of doing similar work for her country.

Player to watch: Nicoline Sørensen (Brøndby IF)

A key performer for Brøndby IF, which recently reclaimed the Danish Elitedivisionen, Nicoline Sørensen is a daring winger/forward on the verge of breaking out for the national team as soon as a position opens up in the forward ranks. At the moment, she’s behind Harder, Nadia Nadim and club teammate Stine Larsen in the pecking order, but the slender 19-year-old will be an important alternative for head coach Nils Nielsen if he finds the need to instil more bravado and speed into his formation during the tournament.

Too talented for the Danish league, Sørensen will return to Sweden after the European Championships, hoping to increment her development at Linköpings FC and amend a fruitless stint as a 17-year-old for rivals FC Rosengård.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): S. Lykke-Petersen; T. Nielsen – S. Boye Sørensen – J. Arnth Jensen – L. Røddik Hansen; S. Troelsgaard Nielsen – L. Sigvardsen Jensen – N. Christiansen – K. Veje; P. HarderN. Nadim

Denmark’s basic structure is the 4x4x2, but they’re not afraid to mix it up with interesting variants. For instance, against Belgium in the first game, don’t be surprised if they showcase an offensive, diamond-shaped midfield, sacrificing Sigvardsen Jensen to post Nanna Christiansen as the only anchor and turn Pernille Harder into the creative fulcrum behind strikers Nadia Nadim and Stine Larsen.

The intrusive offensive positioning of right back Theresa Nielsen is a factor of turbulence for Denmark’s opposition

Furthermore, Denmark is also inclined to implement a backline of three when building from the back, pushing right back Theresa Nielsen up the corridor to provide width in the same horizontal line of left wingback Katrine Veje, and allowing Troelsgaard Nielsen to overload interior domains and move closer to Harder.

The Danes conceded just one goal in qualifying and scored 22 – the same total as group winners Sweden – and tactical malleability was one of their secrets.

Belgium

After coming close to reach the 2013 European Championships and the 2015 World Cup, Belgium finally booked its place on a major international tournament for the first time, and did it in comfortable fashion, edging third-place Serbia by 7 points. However, things will now get trickier for the “Red Flames”, who got hosed by Spain in a humbling 7-0 rout just weeks prior to the tournament, and can’t be considered more than outsiders in Group A.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 7 (5W, 2D, 1L), 5 pts behind England

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Coach: Ives Serneels

Star Player: Tessa Wullaert (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Belgium’s Tessa Wullaert controls the ball under the watchful eye of an English player

While not a prominent feature of Wolfsburg’s attack, Wullaert established herself as a useful piece and a regular solution off the bench for the current German Champions since her move from Standard Liège in 2015. The 24-year-old had outgrown the Belgium League and the national team benefitted from the new impulses and learnings picked up by Wullaert in the Frauen-Bundesliga, where she developed into the hard-working, resourceful forward that led the Euro 2017 qualifying phase with 9 assists to add to four important goals.

With Belgium, Wullaert is usually asked to operate across the attacking zone, whip set pieces and take on defenders, but at this tournament she’ll probable fill an even larger role, working tirelessly without the ball to make ends meet against three superior opponents. It’s not the right stage for her to shine, but it’s what a star player needs to do when his team is significantly outgunned.

Player to watch: Tine de Caigny (RSC Anderlecht)

Due to her height and sprightliness, 20-year-old midfielder Tine de Caigny is a noticeable presence on the Belgium lineup, where she uses her stature to win battles and dominate in the air, not unlike fellow Belgian footballer Marouane Fellaini. However, de Caigny lacks the patented, voluminous mane and doesn’t shake the earth when she walks, with her feet and passing already at a decent level for a young athlete that started out as a defender.

Hereby, take the time to seize her up at the center of the park, or stretching up the field to respond to goal kicks and long balls from the defence, all while hoping her resolute activity can afford a breather to the members of Belgium’s backline.

Tine de Caigny in action against Norway

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): J. Odeurs; M. Coutereels – A. Zeler (C) – H. Jaques – D. Philtjens; J. Biesmans – T. de Caigny – E. van Wynendaele – E. van Gorp ; T. Wullaert – J. Cayman

During qualification, Belgium achieved success riding the dangerous forward combination of Wullaert and Montpellier’s Janice Cayman, but Ives Serneels may well opt for a more cautious approach in the Netherlands, harmonizing a 4x4x1x1 that can unfurl onto a 4x2x3x1 in offense.

In this case, Cayman would be the lone attacker bothering the opposing center backs, with de Caigny offering support and an outlet, while Wullaert would drift wide to cover the right flank and Julie Biesmans would tuck inside to help screen the backline alongside Elien van Wynendaele or the more experienced Lenie Onzia.

Seven (err…twelve) indelible sports moments in 2015

Another year has gone, which means we can now snoop over a bin full of sports memories to cherish and remember. The turn of the calendar is as good a time as any other, so I decided to empty my brain and select what sports fans will take with them from 2015, including instances when athletes overcame their physical and mental limitations, superstars were born or regained some of the respect lost along the way, history books were re-written, or stunning upsets left fans agape.

The screening process was, obviously, enormously dictated by my own preferences (read more about it on the “About” page linked above), and the reader will disagree with a lot of my choices, but I tried to instil as much diversity as possible on the final list. I touched base on a variety of sports, even if, naturally, can’t recognize them all, and searched for a balance between individual and team-based achievements (or failures). An assortment of time frames was also pursued, with the action that enveloped the “moment” being reviewed ranging from a matter of few seconds, to entire matches or even week-long struggles.

I wrote about the seven moments of 2015 that left a deeper mark on my memory and – I believe – in that of the many fans which follow the sports world on a daily basis. In addition, I later appointed five more which also stood out among the numerous monitored live throughout the year.

(By the way, absent is any reference to the heroics of a racing horse on some posh trio of events held in the Spring, or a famous defensive play that occurred with forty something seconds to go on a Championship match that enjoys an unparalleled television audience)

So, without further delay, my breakdown of the main sports moments of the year in no particular order of appearance.

Usain Bolt dodges Justin Gatlin’s challenge

There’s just no way around it. Every time Usain Bolt steps on the track for a major final, the World stops and waits to be amazed. However, before Beijing’s 2015 World Athletics Championships kicked off, the question marks surrounding the Jamaican were at an all-time high since Bolt was unable to surpass a really average (for his standards) 9.87 seconds showing obtained earlier in the year. He was definitely harassed, listening to the same type of discussion produced in 2011 and 2012, when his compatriot Yohan Blake posed a major threat, and rival Justin Gatlin, enjoying a third chance after two suspensions for doping, had been simply outstanding, putting together a 28 races unbeaten streak highlighted by a time of 9.74 seconds and several 9.8 postings.

On the Birds Nest, the American further increased is favouritism with a smashing triumph on his semi-final heat while Bolt had to cover ground on the end just to go through. However, with the stakes at the highest point, the pressure proved too much for Gatlin to handle. Bolt exited the blocks better than expected, and kept the rival in check throughout the race to narrowly defeat a stumbling Gatlin, crossing the finish line in 9.79 seconds. The winning margin was just 0.01 seconds, the tighter victory since Bolt broke through, and more than 0.2 ticks off his World Record (9.58).

Usain Bolt’s patented celebration emerged again in Beijing

The same stadium and city that 7 years ago saw the emergence of a myth wouldn’t see the start of his downfall like many expected, and some days later the 29-year-old doubled down, comfortably sweeping off the speed events with the titles on the 200-meters (with a “normal advantage” over Gatlin) and 4X100 relay. Bolt was ran over by a Segway-ridding cameraman as he was celebrating the double hectometre triumph but, just like during the competition, was able to walk away unscathed.

We’ll see if he can say the same after the Rio Olympics next year, where he’ll fight for a preposterous triple/double collection of gold medals, looking to cap off his legendary career with a third consecutive Olympic triumph on the 100m and 200m events.

Robert Lewandowski nets five goals in nine minutes

Ok, this one is a bit of a cheat, since I wasn’t actually watching the act as it occurred, but following on twitter is close enough, right? A middle-of-the-week league tie, even if contested between the German Champions and the runner-up, can’t be considered appointment viewing, and there was a reason Bayern’s spearhead was on the bench to start the match. However, the half-time disadvantage for the hosts convinced Pep Guardiola that Lewandowski had to go in and the rest is history. Actually, four fresh entries on the Guinness World Records book were added after that night on the Allianz Arena.

The Polish striker needed just five minutes to tie the contest with an opportunistic tip after a superb assist by (former) teammate Dante, and off he was. Two minutes later, and just five touches on the ball in, a creeping shot from distance gave him a brace, and the hat-trick goal soon followed after he buried an attempt that initially found the post. By this time, social media was already exploding with an incredible achievement on a top-level competition, and no one really understood what was happening after the fourth strike in seven minutes!

Pep Guardiola’s reaction to Robert Lewandowski’s wonder night was one of the images of 2015

The fifth, exactly 8:59 min after the ball first found the back of the net, came on a marvellous acrobatic volley from just inside the edge of the box, and became the cherry on top of a remarkable moment for the forward and the sport. Certainly, the type of performance for the ages football fans are lucky to watch once in a lifetime, and an impact substitution not even a master like Guardiola will be able to repeat. Eventually, his face on camera told it all.

As for the poor Wolfsburg side that was on the wrong side of the achievement, well…why did you sign Dante? (Sorry…but not really).

Roberta Vinci shocks Serena Williams at the US Open

Many, if not all, of the events on this list will linger on fans’ minds for a long time, but very few are in the running for the recognition as the greatest upset of all-time on its sport. This one happened because an “undistinguished” 32-year-old Italian decided “to play literally out of her mind” on the biggest stage and moment of them all, and thus spoil part of the legacy of one of the greatest figures in the history of tennis.

So many superlatives? Yes, it was that relevant, that unexpected and, so, so baffling. Serena Williams had already secured three quarters of a lifetime achievement, the calendar Grand Slam, adding her sixth Australian Open, third Roland Garros and sixth Wimbledon to stand on the verge of becoming the sixth human to manage something last seen in 1988. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that only Serena could stop Serena from lifting the trophy at the end of the fortnight on the Artur Ashe Stadium. Eventually, even the top players that could remotely hang on with her were on the other side of the draw (Muguruza, Kvitova, Azarenka, Halep) and dropping like flies.

Roberta Vinci reacts after the match of her life

The American was tested by Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her sister on the early rounds, but was never actually close to losing, and absolutely no one believed Roberta Vinci, the No 43 in the World, could go further than every other Grand Slam adversary in 2015. Serena breezed to take hold of the first set with a 6-2 score line and then the astonishing outcome took form. The crafty, experienced, yet Grand Slam semi-final debutant taking the 2nd set? No reason to panic, Serena had been there countless times before.

Vinci serving for the match? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE? Can’t, won’t happen, right?

The crowd stood in disbelief as the Italian reached the 40-0 lead and the legend eyed the abyss. Serve, cross-court attack, half-volley…Veni, Vidi, Vinci. The unthinkable had materialized. The pressure weighted too much. A career dream was crushed on the finish line. Forever?

Vinci would lose the final to compatriot Flavia Pennetta the next day, on another emotional encounter, but the story was Serena’s choke. The 34-year-old undisputed Queen of women’s tennis came oh so close and blew it. She didn’t took the court again for a WTA match in 2015, and, even for someone like her, it’s tough to muster the strength to come back and push for the same feat again. If it happens, it would probably be as remarkable as whatever occurred in New York on that September evening.

Katie Ledecky obliterates the competition at the Swimming World Championships

An American dominating an edition of Swimming World Championships is far from a unique circumstance. Michael Phelps took five gold medals from the 2009 meet in Rome and Ryan Lochte equalled the feat in Shanghai 2011, while Missy Franklin stepped it up a notch in Barcelona 2013, gathering six titles. Thus, Katie Ledecky’s performance in Kazan, Russia, last August might be a bit undervalued. Don’t be fooled though.

None of her compatriots had to swim as much as the 18-year-old freestyler on a frenetic week of competitions. No less than 6.2 km, 124 laps, and 63 minutes of racing as she navigated the heats, semi-finals, and finals of four individual events, including the gruelling 800m and 1500m, with the final of the last race, the longest on the calendar, preceding by just 20 minutes a close, highly-competitive 200m semi-final.

Katie Ledecky, the podium, trophies and medals. An acquaintance process in full swing

The Washington DC native kicked off her campaign with the triumph on the 400 meters, with a 3.89-seconds advantage never seen before, but was just getting started, showing clear signs of disappointment at the end after missing out on breaking the World Record. Lauren Boyle, the runner-up on the 1500m, touched the wall almost 15(!) seconds after Ledecky set her second World Record on consecutive days at the distance, and she also smashed the 800m mark by 3.61 seconds and her competitors to the tune of a 10-second gap. Because savouring triumphs on longer events is getting boring, Ledecky has added the 200 meters to her repertoire, and she was also successful despite all the miles on her body, gathering the speed to beat the last two world champions on the race. She, thereby, finished up a sweep of the 200, 400, 800 and 15000 meters free events, or the now called “Ledecky Slam”. Amid all this, anchoring the USA’s 4×200 meters relay win was just icing on the cake.

The four individual gold medals represent a unique feat for a female swimmer on the history of the World Championships, and only trail Phelps’ record of five in Montreal 2007. Back in 2012, Ledecky caught the World by surprise winning London’s 800m as a 15-year-old, and the youngest member of the entire US Olympic squad composed of more than 500 athletes. In 2016, she may well be the singular face of the entire Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.

Carly Lloyd erupts to take down Japan in 16 minutes

With no FIFA men’s international competition on the calendar in 2015, football’s brightest eyeballs shifted attention to the Women’s World Cup. Another stepping-stone tournament for the sport on the female side saw the USA and Japan clash for the third consecutive time in major competitions’ finals, four years after a dramatic World Cup final in Frankfurt, and three following Wembley’s Olympic decider. On the BC Place of Vancouver, the story ended up being way different from 2011, when the four goals were scored on the latter half of regulation and overtime, before the penalty shootout separated the parts.

Carly Lloyd carried out one of greatest World Cup performances ever against Japan

This time, inside just 16-minutes, the heavily-supported Americans were well on their way to victory after mounting a four-goal blitz that stunned the reigning Champions. Carly Lloyd deflected in a low corner three minutes into the game, and one hundred seconds later found the ball inside the box to chip it past the Japanese goalkeeper for the second time. With the Nadeshiko dazed, Lauren Holiday took advantage of a terrible clear on the 14th minute to dash with an over the top, classy finish, while Lloyd completed the hat-trick with an astonishing strike from the halfway line that beat a reeling Kaihori. Things slowed down a bit after that, with the final result settled at 5-2 because a brave Japanese team never gave up on the match, but the day undoubtedly belonged to the Americans and to Lloyd.

The USA’s #10 midfielder propelled his side to a magnificent start, one rarely watched before at this level of competition, and completely decimated the opposition, leaving her mark on a major final like she had done in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Her inspired performance throughout the tournament merited the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament, and she will surely welcome another individual accolade in a few days, the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.

Fabio Aru and the improbable Tom Dumoulin go head-to-head at the Vuelta

Selecting just a moment from a whole cycling season comprised of numerous races can be a monumental task. Others may answer with Alberto Contador’s epic recovery on the Mortirollo ascent during the Giro, Chris Froome’s irresistible (and much discussed) attack on the climb to La Pierre Saint Martin during the 10th stage of his second Tour de France triumph, or even Peter Sagan’s coup d’état, with the Slovak finally getting the best of an entire peloton to punch a signature victory on the World Championships.

However, I believe no other battle symbolized what cycling racing is about like the up-and-down affair between Fabio Aru and Tom Dumoulin at the Vuelta, which culminated on the Dutch clinging to the dream until the last day, only to see it vanish through the fingers. The Giant-Alpecin rider was the talk of the first half of the competition alongside Colombian Esteban Chavez, with the pair alternating the ownership of the red jersey while in discussion of the plethora of stages culminating on steep terrain, but not many predicted the 25-year-old could keep up with the best as the difficulties accumulated. Not even after a superb victory over Froome at the end of stage nine.

Fabio Aru (white jersey) and Tom Dumoulin (in red) excelled at the 2015 Vuelta a Espana

Dumoulin would lose ground on a diabolic stage 11 at the Pyrenees, but his feverish fighting spirit provided for terrific moments of cycling as he almost strapped himself to the Vuelta GC contenders over the next few days on the mountains, managing to stay within striking distance while all his teammates lagged way behind unable to support him. Fabio Aru would command the race lead until Dumoulin shattered the opposition on the individual time trial at Burgos, turning the overall classification into a 3-second stranglehold between Dutch and Italian.

Despite Astana’s push over the next two days, Dumoulin resisted stoically, even showing his muscles on the cobbled end at Ávila, before finally succumbing in dramatic fashion on stage 20, at the Puerto de la Moncuera, as Aru and friends were getting antsy and frustrated. The Maastricht-native, on his own, completely empty and defeated, sank further on the final kilometres to finish the Vuelta in sixth, but the fortitude and drive he displayed by leaving it all on the road against the odds impressed every observer. And were well worth of a reference here.

Stan Wawrinka ends Novak Djokovic’s Roland Garros bid

A truly significant season for tennis saw two players end the year with three Grand Slam titles on their bags, and it could have been even more incredible had Novak Djokovic joined Serena Williams on the quest to complete the calendar Slam at the US Open. He couldn’t because the only stain on a brilliant 2015 season came in June, at the final of the only big tournament that still eludes the Serbian.

The 27-year-old entered the Court Phillipe Cartier still riding the wave of a drubbing over Rafael Nadal on the quarter-finals, only the second time (and first when healthy) that the King of Clay got beaten at Roland Garros, but also feeling the effects of a nervous five-setter against Andy Murray on the semi-finals. A match where the pressure of clinching the trophy that is missing on his curriculum started opening some cracks on the armour.

Stan Wawrinka came out ahead of Novakj Djokovic at Roland Garros

Like happened to Roger Federer until 2009 – and to other tennis greats that never grasped success at the French Open – Djokovic may have shrunk with the tension and indomitable desire to win he had to cope with, but the final was much more than a favourite throwing out a golden opportunity. Stan Wawrinka had already backed up his candidacy to a second Grand Slam title with a straight sets victory over Federer, and was completely “in the zone” on that afternoon, unleashing his patented one-handed backhand with devastating precision left and right after “Nole” took the inaugural set.

Djokovic had to settle for the finalist’s plaque and a deserved rising ovation from the crowd after a crushing defeat, but snapped out of it pretty quickly. Wimbledon and the US Open would later join his other nine titles amassed in 2015, and that loss to the Swiss was the only in 28 matches at Majors and one of just six during the best season of the Serbian’s career. The setback in Paris just fuelled his hunger for more, and he figures to come back in 2016 even more prepared to complete his own career Slam and equal Nadal and Federer, his contemporaries that figure on a shortlist of just seven names.

And, on a quicker sequence, five more moments that just missed the main cut:

Lionel Messi gets back to marvelling the world

Football fans around the world blessed 2014-15 for the return of the best Lionel Messi. The Argentinian wizard used the motivation after a crushing World Cup Final defeat to power Barcelona to a second treble in four seasons, as the Blaugrana hoarded the Spanish League, the Spanish Cup and the Champions League. Messi’s brilliance was at its peak on two key moments.

First, on a monumental goal against Bayern Munich on the 1st leg of the European Cup semi-final, turning Jerome Boateng into a bowling pin before chipping the ball beautifully over Manuel Neuer. A few weeks later, he embarrassed Athletic Bilbao’s defence on the Copa Del Rey decider with a preposterous slalom which started near the convergence of the sideline and center circle and ended with him slotting the ball home.

The Ski Flying World Record falls twice on a weekend

Slovenia’s Peter Prevc flew like never before at Vikersund

Humanity’s enduring fascination with flying finds resonance on ski jumping and especially its more risky offshoot, ski flying, where athletes really push the limits of audacity. 2015 brought the first jump over the 250 meters barrier, as Peter Prevc flew exactly that in February, 14th, during a World Cup event held in Vikersund, Norway.

The Slovenian broke by 4 meters the mark set on the same venue, in 2011, by Norwegian Johan Remen Evensen, but his reign would be really short. To the delight of the home crowd, Norway’s Anders Fannemel soared 251.5 meters the following evening under perfect conditions and stole the record back. The next few years promise new heights, since Vikersund and the “rival” infrastructure in Planica, Slovenia, have suffered renovations and extensions, so expect more superlative images of sportsman gliding on air for what appears like an eternity. After all, the 300m may be just around the corner.

The Golden State Warriors complete a fairytale season with first NBA title in 40 years

The gang of Stephen Curry had shown flashes of domination in years past, but only after Steve Kerr took over the bench everything clicked into perfection. The Golden State Warriors won 67 games on the NBA Regular Season led by an unique sharpshooter enjoying an MVP-worthy performance, an incredible sidekick (or should I say Splash Brother?) in Klay Thompson, and Mr. Everything Draymond Green, and then weaved through the minefield that are the Western Conference playoffs to reach the NBA Finals.

The 2015 NBA Champions, the Golden State Warriors

Against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, the most exciting team in basketball conquered the ultimate prize in six fascinating games, undoubtedly benefitting from an opponent that was weakened by substantial injuries to star actors, and had to place too much of a burden on the planet’s best player over the last decade. Nevertheless, with or without the injury bug, no team lighted out arenas all over North America throughout the season like the Warriors, and the series may well be reminisced before long by the passing of the torch from James to Curry as the world’s finest player.

Japan stuns South Africa at the Rugby World Cup

England welcomed what can probably be considered the biggest sports competition of 2015, and beyond the hosts’ lacklustre performance, and New Zealand’s uncontested supremacy towards reclaiming the spot at the top of the mountain, there was time for a completely unexpected result. Rugby’s history places the sport amongst those where the minnows stand lower changes of humbling the giants, whereby Japan’s courage and faith belied the norm and they were deservedly rewarded for it.

The moment Japan dreamed with

On that afternoon at Brighton, the “Brave Blossoms” did justice to their name, deciding to press for the winning try as the final whistle approached instead of settling for a potential equalising kick. The Springboks had already sweated way beyond their expectations to conjure a narrow lead, were left to crawl in order to protect it, but they probably never realized a team with only one World Cup triumph could pull off the tournament’s greatest shock ever.

That is, obviously, until New Zealand-born Karne Hesketh finalised the 34-32 score in injury time, with what looked like a bunch of folks helping launch him forward so the ball could touch South Africa’s area. It was goosebumps-inducing stuff. In 2019, at home, can Japan do an encore, please?

Jamie Benn clinches NHL’s Art Ross Trophy at the buzzer

You really thought I would go away without a hockey reference? At the end of 2014, I had two moments lined up for the “would be” review list of the year, but this season was leaner in worthwhile memories. The Chicago Blackhawks collecting a third Stanley Cup in six seasons was kind of boring (for neutral fans), and the playoffs lacked striking scenes, even if the Hawks and Ducks on the West, and the Rangers and Caps on the East, weren’t far from the level of excitement provided by that Hawks-LA Kings matchup of a year ago.

Thus, my choice was the theatrical and improbable late charge that delivered Dallas Stars’ captain Jamie Benn his scoring title. With his team out of the playoff race, he put up 15 points in the last 6 games to leap John Tavares on the 82th and final contest, grabbing 4 points, including an assist with just 8.5 seconds remaining, to reach 87 on the season. On a game with no implications table-wise, the buzz, voltage and elation on the American Airline Center, as time ticked away and the team pushed for the tally that Cody Eakin ultimately delivered, made for a stunning sports instant that few won’t relish.

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And that’s all I have for you from 2015. Thanks for reading, and let’s hope for even better in 2016!

Summer Tournaments everywhere – A recap of football’s club-offseason (II)

(For the 1st part of this article, thoughts on the U-20 World Cup and the U-21 European Championships, go here)

Copa América

The 2015 edition of the South American footballing festival took place in Chile and ended the country’s hunger for a major tournament win, with the hosts lifting the trophy for the first time in their history.

Outside of the arbitral controversies that always permeate these events one way or another, and that, in some moments, surely helped Chile advance, the eventual Champions were no less deserving of the honours, performing admirably in front of their fans and never succumbing to the pressure of carrying the hopes of an entire nation. Masterfully implementing an all-out attacking style of play that seduced every football fan and made the best of their stars, with the likes of Alexis Sánchez, Arturo Vidal and Eduardo Vargas free to roam the pitch, interchange positions and pounce on goal at every occasion, Chile supplemented its swashbuckling, intense system with an extremely high line of defence and pressure all over the field.

Chile’s golden generation finally celebrated a title

As such, Chile’s games were synonymous with highly-entertaining football and it’s no surprise that the best match of the tournament, and probably the entire football year, was their group finale against Mexico, a 3-3 thriller that awed every spectator with uncountable chances and top-class finishes.

Such exciting brand of football proved risky for the hosts, caught off-guard on defence several times, but didn’t stopped them from sticking with their guns and believing on a defence that embodies the spirit of his leader. Gary Medel, the “Pitbull”, spent the games dispatching service where fires emerged, tightly harassing opposing strikers, and encouraging his team from a backend that navigated between a line of 3 or 4 elements. The variation relied on the position of Marcelo Diaz, the astute Hamburg defensive midfielder that split attentions between helping out his centre backs and using his passing skills to transition the play to the offense quickly, a must for Chile’s system.

Eduardo Vargas scored the goal that sent Chile to the final

In front of Diaz, an impressive midfield got complete with the world-class talent of Arturo Vidal, who may well have been the least remarkable of the sector since he lagged behind the performances of the cerebral Jorge Valdivia, absolutely magical at times exploring the runs of his forwards, and the tireless Charles Aránguiz. Two “carrileros” on the wings provided support and width while, on the attack, Sanchez and Vargas were a nightmare for opposing defences due to their mobility, speed and spontaneity. And lest we forget the starting goaltender, FC Barcelona’s Claudio Bravo, whose calm demeanour bounced on his teammates in stressful moments, and who only allowed a goal outside of the Mexico game (Chile was already qualified to the quarter-finals by then).

The side prepared by Jorge Sampaoli was far from a surprise, having already been one of the most distinguished teams at last year’s World Cup, but it was inspiring to see the golden generation of Chilean football finally come through, seven years after Marcelo Bielsa started the work that Sampaoli smartly completed and built on after taking over in 2012.

However, the Argentinian coach shouldn’t be depreciated, since he did a perfect job adapting his team for the final, playing much more conservatively in order to reduce the space Messi and Pastore had to manufacture on the final third. The 0-0 decider didn’t have the beauty of the rest of Chile’s performances but Sampaoli played his cards right and got lucky on the penalty shootout.

Beyond the new South American Champions, reflexions on the other contenders:

Peru was the most interesting squad outside of the versatile Chileans, going off in the semi-final against the hosts but only after displaying incredible fighting spirit, coming back to tie the game after seeing captain Lobatón sent off early on the first half. Right back Luis Advíncula and midfielder Christian Cueva were players that saw their quotation sky rock during the tournament, but veterans like Jefferson Farfán, Juan Vargas and Paolo Guerreiro performed admirably for the generally young side under the guidance of Ricardo Gareca. In particular, Guerreiro ended the tournament as the joint top goal scorer (4 goals) alongside Chile’s Eduardo Vargas, with an hat-trick against Bolivia, in the quarter-finals, pushing him towards renewing an accolade he had already collected in 2011.

Lionel Messi and Javier Pastore were unstoppable against Paraguay in the semi-finals

Argentina’s 22-year title drought continues despite Messi’s best efforts, with his senior résumé still missing that elusive international award. He lost his third final, after the 2007 Confederations Cup and 2014 World Cup, and had to watch hopelessly as his teammates failed to follow his lead even in the decisive penalty shootout. In comparison with the squad that lost the final last year, Tata Martino kept the main pieces but made slight chances in personal, the most important of which was the inclusion of Javier Pastore as a playmaker, shifting Messi wide. The crafty PSG midfielder slowly clicked with Angel Di Maria and the Barcelona superstar, and the Argentinian’s kept improving as the tournament progressed, resulting in the 6-1 thumping of Paraguay in the semis, with the trio producing a glittering display. It was a real shame they couldn’t build on that momentum after losing Di Maria’s dazzling runs during the final due to injury.

• Eager to put behind the “Maracanazo”, the Brazilian national team had high hopes for this Copa America but Dunga’s group showed the same problems of the World Cup. Extreme overreliance in Neymar, who got kicked out of the competition following the defeat against Colombia in the second match, a sub-par defensive scheme, and individual mistakes that just can’t be accepted at this level of competition. Whilst Neymar was already on vacation, the experienced Thiago Silva committed an absurd penalty to allow Paraguai to tie the quarter-final encounter and eventually go through on penalties. Most of the squad was sick heading into that game, but that’s just not enough to dismiss the idea that, had they went on, the title was an illusion without the services of their star winger. Philippe Coutinho, Douglas Costa and Willian are nice players, partially covering for the imagination absent without Neymar, but it’s just depressing when the best Brazil can muster, with an international competition on the line, is a forward unit consisting of Diego Tardelli, Roberto Firmino and a 31-year-old Robinho.

Derlis González penalty ended Brazil’s hopes of conquering the Copa América

Paraguay completed the semi-finals alignment not only due to Brazil’s screw ups but also because of the bravery, belief and resiliency shown over the entire tournament, especially on the draw snatched against Argentina on the inaugural fixture, coming back from two goals down. Ramon Diaz’s team lacked the talent of some of its rivals but reaped the benefits of a successful mix between savvy strikers like Lucas Barrios and younger creators such as Edgar Benitez and Derlis González, the skilled 21-year-old Basel forward.

• For a Colombian team that disappointed after last year’s run in Brazil, 23-year-old center-back Jeison Murillo was the revelation – earning the nomination as the best young player of the competition – and, most disturbingly, the only goal scorer, since “Los Cafeteros” failed to find the back of the net on any other opportunity despite all the firepower upfront. The roster oriented by José Pékerman failed to score against Venezuela and Peru, and left the competition after a disastrous penalty shootout against Argentina, in a match they only dragged that long because of several incredible saves by goalkeeper David Ospina.

• The defending Champions, Uruguay, were usurped by the eventual Champions in a polemic quarter-final match, but they weren’t far from going out even earlier, having narrowly edged Jamaica for their only win in Chile. Without the suspended Luiz Suárez, “Los Charrúas” suffered to score goals and an unsettled Edison Cavani didn’t help their cause, even if the defence was as stout as usual, with Atletico Madrid’s José Giménez and Diego Godin manning the backend with aplomb.

Women’s World Cup

An historical tournament, a tremendous event, and a big step forward for the world of football on the female side: the 2015 World Cup beat attendance and television records from previous editions, proved that the decision to expand to 24 national teams had solid foundations to stand on, and boasted unprecedented following on all platforms and major countries. All of this was only possible due to the excellent level of play and competitiveness throughout the 52 matches that definitely turned the Women’s World Cup into the second biggest event, at the country level, in the sport. And, hopefully, FIFA will realise that playing it on turf, like some secondary tournament, can’t (WON’T!) happen ever again.

The BC Place, in Vancouver, sold out for several matches during the 2015 Women’s World Cup

Focusing on what occurred on the field, the United States of America celebrated at the end, triumphing over defending Champions Japan on the final held almost on their own backyard, in Vancouver, Canada. With the win, the Americans become the first team to lift the trophy in three occasions (1991, 1999, 2015), leaving the company of Germany, the only other repeating Champion (2003, 2007).

The eventual winners got better as the tournament progressed after a hesitating group phase and reached their peak just at the right time, building momentum as their performances and confidence increased during the knockout rounds. If the team commanded by Jill Ellis was lucky to reach the half time break of their inaugural game tied 1-1 with Australia, they wouldn’t see another ball go past their goaltender until the Final of the competition, showcasing an unexpected defensive efficiency that allowed the attack to found its stride. The Americans eventually managed to take their first game by 3-1, but scored only once during the following two matches (0-0 against Sweden and 1-0 over Nigeria) before sweating to break the resistance of Colombia on the round of 16, benefiting from the sent-off of the opposing goalie early on the second half.

Morgan Brian’s insertion on the lineup was key to get the USA (white) past Germany (red)

However, Colombia’s game was a turning point to the team, since the suspensions to two starters, midfielders Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe, forced Ellis to explore other options heading into the quarter-final against China. The coach decided to drop 35-year-old striker Abby Wambach, the most prolific goal scorer in international women’s football history, to the bench and inserted 22-year-old Morgan Brian in the line-up, opening the door to a tactical change that ultimately solved their offensive shortcomings. Without Wambach, Alex Morgan was left as the lone forward and the team unleashed the in-form Carli Lloyd to focus on producing offense, with Holiday and Brian providing the defensive backing on the midfield. Thus, moving away from a static, predictable, overwrought 4-4-2 where the target of Wambach’s head was too big to resist, a new 4-2-3-1 system emerged, allowing for more possession and player movement, with Lloyd and wingers Rapinoe and Tobin Heath blossoming.

After dispatching China with a header by Lloyd, on the semi-final against Germany, the number one team in the World, the Americans undoubtedly caught two huge breaks: Julie Johnston escaping a red card for the fault that gave the Germans a penalty missed with the game still tied 0-0; and Alex Morgan stopped at the outside edge of the box on the other end, with the referee awarding the penalty Lloyd would convert to open the score.

However, on the final, the USWNT held no prisoners, obliterating the team that had defeated them four years prior, at the same stage, with 4 goals in the first 16 minutes, including an hat trick for Lloyd completed with this ridiculous tally.

Carly Lloyd (#10) put on the performance of a lifetime on the World Cup final

Naturally, the New Jersey-native was the star of the tournament, receiving the Golden Ball, for best player, and the silver boot – after tying for the goal scoring lead with 6 goals, the same obtained by Germany’s Celia Sasic in fewer minutes – but the team’s defensive unit also performed at almost unprecedented levels, missing by mere seconds a new shutout record in a single World Cup (539 minutes to Germany’s 540 in 2007). The merit lied on the near-irreprehensible work of the central-pair former by Becky Sauerbrunn and tournament-debutant Julie Johnston, full backs Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg, and goaltender Hope Solo. On the other hand, an attack that had several potent weapons at its disposal received only two goals from forwards, with Wambach and Christen Press notching once during the group phase, but watching from the bench alongside Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez as Lloyd stole the show. Alex Morgan, the brightest diamond in the box, didn’t find the back of the net but worked diligently, even if she lacked explosiveness due to a less than ideal preparation marred by injuries.

Time for some notes on the rest of the field:

Japan’s Aya Miyama collected the Bronze Ball

Japan reached the final for the third consecutive major tournament (2011 and 2015 World Cup, 2012 Olympics) but this was probably their most uninspired performance. The Nadeshiko won every game until the final but couldn’t assemble any triumph that wasn’t for the lowest margin. Not even against Ecuador, a team that was absolutely blitzed by minnows Cameroon (6-0) and debutant Switzerland (10-1). Norio Sasaki’s side also lucked out in avoiding the other main contenders in the knockout rounds and could only take care of Australia (QF) and England (SF) due to late regulation strikes, which were wrapped up in tremendous amounts of fortune. The Japanese kept their patented style, built on short passes, imagination, and tricky, involving plays, but the difference-maker that veteran Homare Sawa was on the 2011 campaign just never materialised as they struggled to convert on chances. Although Captain Aya Miyama tried to fill the void and performed admirably (2 G + 1 A, Bronze Ball winner), her positioning on the field, mostly on the left wing, was a headscratcher, limiting her influence. Certainly, it wasn’t a coincidence that the team only stabilized during the Final after she moved back in, settling her teammates and organizing the reaction. However, by that time, the win was already out of reach due to a series of lapses by a defence clearly overwhelmed by the rampant American start.

Germany was another squad that wasn’t at his best in Canada, looking sloppy at times. The Germans didn’t close out Norway on their only challenging game on the group stage, but seemed to be heating up with an authoritative 4-1 win over Sweden on the round of 16. However, on the most compelling match of the entire tournament, they were outplayed by a talented French team and had to thank goaltender Nadine Angerer for squeezing through on penalties. The semi-final clash with the USA was decided on details and they have reasons to complain about key refereeing judgments, but that doesn’t conceal the fact that their level of play was lacking at times. With Nadine Kessler already out of the tournament, the Germans suffered another huge blow due to Dzsenifer Marozsan’s recurring physical limitations, which restricted their creativity on the midfield and left Celia Sasic and Anja Mittag starved for quality balls (the pair amassed 11 goals combined on the tournament, but more than half were obtained on the 10-0 thrashing of Ivory Coast). Nevertheless, in the middle of another disappointing performance and the second consecutive world competition away from the podium, a bright spot arose in the play of 21-year-old Melanie Leopolz, who thrived alongside Lena Goessling at the center of the park.

Fara Williams sealed England’s bronze medal after scoring the lone goal against Germany

England was the biggest surprise of the tournament, capping the best outcome of their history with their first ever win against Germany on the 3rd place match. The Lionesses were defeated by France on the inaugural match but rebounded to reach the knockout stage, when they piled on upsets. First, with a comeback victory over Norway, then a stunning 2-1 win over hosts Canada, silencing the 50,000 inside the BC Place in Vancouver, and finally beating Germany to secure the Bronze. Before this, however, they almost shocked Japan, missing several chances to take a 2-1 lead during the second half before an incredibly cruel own-goal by Laura Bassett, in injury-time, handed the final place to their opponents. The captain Fara Williams, perfect from the penalty spot on three opportunities, and the timely offensive contributions of defenders Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton were essential to England’s run, but the side led by 32-year-old Mark Sampson impressed the most due to an hard-working nature that started on the forwards, with the inspiration of Eniola Aluko quickly side-lined in favour of the strength and stamina exhibited by Jodie Taylor or Toni Duggan.

France’s Eugenie Le Sommer (#9) eludes Germany’s Alexandra Popp (#18) during the quarter-final match played in Montreal

• For France, the 2015 World Cup wasn’t the definitive confirmation as a Cup-winning side on the Women’s game but it wasn’t for the lack of talent. The French suffered a thunderous setback on a 2-0 loss to Colombia on the group stage yet rebounded quickly to dispatch Mexico and South Korea, setting up a match worthy of a final. Against Germany, France went up on a Louisa Necib strike but a dubious penalty tied the game and “Les Blueues” fell on penalties despite dominating much of the 120 minutes. Even with the precocious farewell, defensive anchor Amandine Henry was awarded the Silver Ball, a fair recognition for a roster laden with players that have won everything at the club level, but have yet to reach a major final for the country, with another opportunity looming when France hosts the next World Cup in 2019.

• The hosts had high hopes for the event but they never seemed to unwind with the pressure of the home crowd, failing to put together any imposing performance even against four less than stellar opponents (China, New Zealand, Netherlands, Switzerland) to start the competition. Only three goals obtained in four matches were worrying signals, and when the team fell into a two-goal hole in the quarter-final against England, Canada just seemed to lack the firepower to turn the score around. Captain Christine Sinclair gave some hope with her only goal in the tournament not scored on a penalty, but the unbending English backline held on. The performance of Sinclair was disappointing throughout the event but she just didn’t have much help from a squad missing offensive talent. The signature Canadian forward is 32-years-old and her succession has to be a concern, but, at least, Canada has someone to look out on defence, the flamboyant 19-year-old skipper Kadeisha Buchanan, who confirmed expectations by picking up the World Cup’s best young player award.

Canada´s dream of winning the 2015 World Cup ended at the hands of England despite Christine Sinclair’s goal.

• Canada underachieved but the hosts weren’t the only ones, with Brazil and Sweden leaving the tournament through the backdoor. Marta’s team walked unscathed through the group phase, winning every game and keeping their net immaculate, but an Australian tally with ten minutes to go on their round of 16 match determined Brazil’s fate and set a terrible harbinger for next year’s Olympics. The South American’s were doomed by the lack of punch displayed by their top forward duo, with Marta (1 goal) and Cristiane (0) unable to convert on the chances created on a “do or die” occasion. Marta’s marker, though, was enough to tie former German striker Birgit Prinz for the record of most goals on World Cup history (15), and Formiga, at the ripe age of 37, become the oldest markswoman in the event during Brazil’s opening win over South Korea.

Sweden’s presentation was even worse, with the team kicking off the tournament with an atrocious defensive performance against Nigeria (3-3) and leaving Canada without a single victory. Pia Sundhage’s side was at his best on the battle against the eventual World Champions (0-0), maybe because the coach knew so much about the opponents, but they failed to build on that during the Australia (1-1) match, and sneaked on as one of the third place teams. The final score of their elimination game against Germany (1-4) tells the entire story of a mediocre display and the country’s need to reflect on what went wrong. They can start on the complete vanishing of star forward Lotta Schelin and Nilla Fischer’s failure to stabilize the defensive sector, but Sundhage’s options also left a lot to be desired. Nonetheless, some newcomers showed potential to assume key roles down the line, including a duo of 22-year-old defenders: Elin Rubensson and Amanda Ilestedt.

Caitlin Foord (#9) and her Australian teammates pulled the upset of the tournament by eliminating Marta’s Brazil

• On the other end, the most positive confirmation (not really a revelation) of the competition were the Matildas, whose showings in Canadian soil exhibited skill, pace and youthful exuberance in dozens. Alen Stajcic’s side not only pushed the USA, at times, like no other team could manage over the tournament, but they also imposed the first true upset of the event, jettisoning Brazil before going toe to toe with Japan. A late, really unfortunate goal sank Australia’s dream for now, but the staggering amount of under-25 talent on the Aussie team guarantees that they’ll be even better in four years. It’s just a matter of getting Steph Catley (21), Emily Van Egmond (22), Elise Kellond-Knight (24), Katrina Gorry (22), Samantha Kerr (21), Kyah Simon (24) and Caitlin Foord (20) to deliver on their potential and acquire more experience.

(To read part I, go here)

Favourites and Stars of the 2015 Women’s World Cup

For some, it’s just the “other World Cup”. For smart football fans, it’s a great chance to catch up with the best female football players in the world on the biggest stage. “The same game, the same passion, the same emotion, different faces” could be a nice slogan for the Women’s World Cup, an event that keeps getting bigger, better and more interesting.

The 2015 edition, held in Canada, features 24 nations for the first time, 50% more than the customary, which is bound to result in some highly one-sided scores (see: Germany – Ivory Coast), but there’s no doubt that increasingly more countries are fuelling money for the women’s game and the field of candidates for the title expands on every occasion. Therefore, for almost a full month (6th June to 5th July), talented individuals will grace the stadiums of the six cities (Moncton, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver, spanning the entire Canadian territory) hosting the tournament, and produce unforgettable moments of football on the highly polemic synthetic grass pitches approved by FIFA.

This article aims to expose the major candidates to lift the Women’s World Cup trophy, point out the other teams that may leave a mark on the tournament and, along the way, introduce the biggest stars on the game. To start, I sort out the top five contenders to claim the whole thing.

5. Brazil

Despite becoming a powerhouse on women’s football on the last decade, the Brazilians have yet to clinch a major title, falling short on the 2007 World Cup final, to Germany, and the 2004 and 2008 Olympics (to USA).

Talent has never been a problem for the team, but the national federation understood that more had to be done in order to boast the chances of success. Therefore, they established a residency program for the national team’s players plying their trade at home, with the team training together, in Sao Paulo, through the whole year leading up to the World Cup. This method accounts for the lack of a sustainable national league on the country and improves chemistry on and off the field but there’s a slight weakness to the plan: superstar Marta (along with midfielder Beatriz), the five-times FIFA World Player of the year – and finalist in the last 11 years! – wasn’t there to prepare the competition with her teammates, which would certainly help in integrating her transcendent qualities on their style of play. It’s a problem this Brazil team faces now and then, not unlike the struggles of Lionel Messi and Argentina over the last international competitions…

The Brazilian follow Marta’s lead even in celebrations

Even if the Canarinhas will benefit from a pleasant group draw, facing debutants Spain and Costa Rica along with lowly South Korea, the danger is just around the corner, as the winner of group E will face, on the last 16, the runner-up of group D, highlighted by the USA and Sweden, possibly taking their journey to a premature close.

As is the norm with all of their teams, Brazil will rely heavily on the strength of the attack, with powerful striker Cristiane, she of the 74 international goals at the age of 30, once again joining forces with 29-year-old Marta to form an intimidating duo. Yet, the rest of their roster is not up to the par, with Formiga still being, at age 37 and on her sixth World Cup participation, a major component of their midfield with her tireless runs and outstanding work rate, doing justice to the nickname. Elsewhere, the adaptable midfielder/forward Andressa Alves is the only promising youngster who figures to make a real impact on the team, probably snatching a starting spot from the experienced Rosana (111 caps), and a lacking backline could be exposed by the high pressing style imposed by coach Vadao, something that was evident on last April’s 4-0 defeat to Germany.

With the Rio Olympics just a year away, the tournament can also be considered a stepping stone for a team that will be under real pressure to deliver gold. For the time being, Brazil will go as far as Marta can take them – Vadao recently said that ““Marta has the same impact on our team as Neymar does with the men’s side” – and that’s as dangerous for them as for their opponents, because she can dominate a game almost by herself and will them through the eliminatory rounds. I wouldn’t count on that, though.

4. Japan

The Nadeshiko defeated the USA on an unforgettable night in Frankfurt four years ago, but this time they won’t have the surprise factor on their side. Inspired by their people in 2011, just a few months after thousands of compatriots died on a terrible earthquake, Norio Sasaki’s side enjoyed a fairy-tale month, that included a shocking triumph over the hosts and tournament favourites on the quarter-finals, and a display of possession-heavy football that delighted the critics. From unknowns to recognizable figures, the 2011 World Cup brought attention to some of the team’s main stars and no other received as much laurels as the leader and Captain Homare Sawa, who left Germany as the tournament’s best player and would receive the FIFA Player of the Year award a few months later.

Japan’s Aya Miyama

Sawa would resign from the national team after the silver medal conquered in London 2012 but, at age 36 and 200 caps later, she’s back for another go-around, competing in her sixth World Cup and re-joining the brilliant Aya Miyama at the heart of Japan’s midfield. The pair is essential to the tiki-taka-like approach that the Japanese have implemented under Sasaki’s guidance, relying on his players’ technical excellence and passing skills, but the team has other individuals capable of shining on the big stage.
Let’s take, for instance, defensive stalwart Saki Kumagai, who was an important piece of the championship team in 2011 and whose performances provided a ticket for Europe, specifically FFC Frankfurt. At age 24 and now representing Olympique Lyon, she’s one of the finest skippers on the women’s game.

Meanwhile, outside of Miyama and Sawa, the midfield is populated by some combination of veteran Kozue Ando, Mizuho Sakaguchi, Nahomi Kawasumi and Rumi Utsugi, who all contribute to the fluent style of play, with the attack usually reserved for Wolfsburg’s Yuki Ogimi (53 goals in 117 caps), Shinobu Ohno and Yuki Sugasawa. On the bench, a former star in their youth teams, diminutive forward Mana Iwabuchi, now 22-years-old, keeps awaiting her chance to shine on the heels of a debut season for German Champions Bayern Munich.

Together, all Japan’s players share the same trait: low centre of gravity, quick execution, intelligence and an appearance of physical fragility that tricks opponents. The Japanese will always suffer on the air and during inevitable physical confrontations against the likes of Germany or the USA, but, through commitment and team work, they’ve found a way to compete head-to-head and, with the weapons at their disposal, repeating is certainly more than a pipe dream.

3. France

The cream-of–the–crop in women’s football is coming up next, but the supremely talented French are poised to join the top of the board in short order. Actually, some would argue that they’re at that level right now and only the lack of previous international successes keeps this team a step below on the pre-tournament favourite’s rankings. Four years ago, France ended up in 4th, repeating the outcome on the 2012 Olympics, both all-time bests, but this time anything other than the podium would be a disappointment.

Indeed, the roster at the disposal of Coach Philippe Bergeroo, a former GK of the men’s national team, is stacked with skilled, matured, in-their-prime stars who have amassed experience over the last few years. Not only for the national team but also on the emerging French League, especially on the powerful Olympique Lyon and PSG, which jointly supply 18 of the 23 players called to the World Cup (four players hail from FCF Juvisy, while youngster Claire Lavogez is the lone Montpellier representative).

Louisa Necib (#14) and Gaetane Thiney (#17)

The main star of France’s squad is definitely Lyon’s playmaker Louisa Necib, the superb 28-year-old creator with supreme vision, technical skills and a powerful accurate shot from distance. The Marseille-native has crafted an impressive chemistry with teammate Eugénie Le Sommer, whose speed and flair make her a dangerous contributor whether she plays up top or on the wing. Gaetane Thiney creates all over the last third of the field and adds an impressive finishing touch (13 goals on the qualifiers), while 30-year-old Camille Abily is the voice of reason on the midfield when necessary.

With 58 goals in 86 caps, lengthy Marie Laure Delie is the main striker in the roster while speedy Élodie Thomis can play any attacking role needed. And we haven’t even talked about Kheira Hamraoui and Kenza Dali, recent additions that shined this season for PSG, the vice-European Champions. Anchoring Les Bleues’ behind all this firepower, there’s Amandine Henry, one of the best holding midfielders in the world, who occasionally enjoys the help of former captain Élise Bussaglia. The 28-year-old, mistake-prone, Sarah Bouhaddi is still the team’s main goalkeeper but she can count on a reliable defence line, patrolled by the imposing central presence of skipper Wendy Renard and Laura George.

Overall, France entertains the crowds with an attractive blend of football, based on high pace and fluidity, and is a deep, athletic, versatile team with few weaknesses and options that allow for different styles of play depending on the circumstances. Because of this, they’ll be a tough out for everyone, having recently beaten, for example, the two teams coming right after. A first major title can certainly be on the cards for the French.

2. USA

Winner of the last three Olympic gold medals, the USA have missed out on the World title since 1999, with their closest chance to regain glory being squandered against Japan, four years ago, after the deciding penalty shootout. In 2015, with thousands of fans getting north of the border to support their team, it’s, once again, gold or bust for the United States Women’s National Team (or USWNT).

Alex Morgan (#13) and Abby Wambach rejoice after the decisive goal on USA’s victory over Canada en route to the 2012 Olympic gold.

Swedish coach Pia Sundhage, who led the team from 2007 to 2012, is now at the helm of her nation’s outfit and it’s one of her former assistants, Jill Ellis, who has the ingrate task of managing a squad with so many weapons and expectations that the pressure can be overwhelming. Long known for their physical domination, fighting spirit and athleticism, the Americans had to catch up with the evolution of the game at the world scale and they’ve slowly tried to implement a style more based on possession and tactical prowess instead of long balls, exploring the space behind the opposing backlines and overpowering speed. The gamble has delivered some ups and downs, advances and setbacks, and ultimately they’ve seemed to found a fusion that adapts to this era’s needs and still reaps the best out of their players.

And what a stellar collection of talent they have, starting from the best goalkeeper in the World, Hope Solo, a player that has saved the team countless times over the years. In front of her, there’s a defence that suffered a renovation since the London 2012 tournament, with captain Christie Rampone (40 years and 306 (!) caps) yielding her centre-back place to Julie Johnston, a fiery 23-year-old who will a have long career leading the team from the backline. 30-year-old Becky Sauerbrunn has also come off the shadows to pair with Johnson, while Meghan Klingenberg snatched the left back position after developing nicely during two seasons on the Swedish League. The only mainstay is the experienced Ali Krieger, which manages the right side after missing the last Olympics.

Midfielder Lauren Holiday

The 37-year-old Shannon Box is well past her prime, just like Rampone, and she has also been replaced on the defensive midfielder role, which now is managed, in turns, by Carly Lloyd, a box-to-box midfielder with a knack for decisive goals (Lloyd scored the game-winning-goal in the last two Olympic finals) and Lauren Holiday, which started in the national team as a forward, then drifted to the outside of the midfield and now uses her vision, awareness and technical abilities to manufacture the attack. Even though both Lloyd and Holiday are responsible defensively and have good stamina, none is a classic holding midfielder and that can severely expose the team against other favourites for the trophy.

From super-sub in Germany to driving force of the midfield in 2015, the daring Megan Rapinoe is a key player for the Americans, with her brilliant feet producing spectacular crosses and being a threat on shots from far. The Seattle Reign star is naturally responsible for all set pieces and her imaginative game makes the difference, while another creator, winger Tobin Heat, comes off the bench oozing confidence on her touch and incredible dribbles. 26-year-old Christen Press took her time arriving on the main national team after scoring boatloads of goals in Sweden, but she’s found her niche on the right side, using an explosive stride and instincts to get to the dangerous areas and provide offense.

Press is a natural forward and had to take a back seat precisely due to the quality of the team’s strikers, starting with Abby Wambach, whose 182 international goals are a football record, and her size (181 cm) and ability on the air a rarity on the women’s game. The 35-year-old hopes to get her first World title before surrendering the lead, for good, to Sydney Leroux, the boisterous forward born in Canada, and Alex Morgan.
Fighting injuries during the last months, Morgan is not only the most marketable player on the team (and the entire female football world) but a unique piece of the puzzle, congregating strength, speed, tenacity and a deadly release in front of the goal to become the biggest single threat on the team if fit.

Such an arsenal promises to be almost impossible to stop, with the United States poised to score at will, but the defensive aspects are a major concern heading into the tournament. The Americans’ games will be entertaining and eventful but, come the decisions and close games, their defensive effort must be well calibrated or otherwise the tournament may end in disappointment.

1. Germany

World Champions in 2003 and 2007, European Champions (for the eighth time in a row!) two summers ago in Sweden, and shockingly dispatched in the quarter-finals of “their” tournament in 2011. The Germans have the history, the experience, the desire to avenge that setback, and a powerful squad capable of breezing through the Canadian event. Oh, and they can do so even without the services of the injured Nadine Kessler, merely the reigning FIFA Player of the Year, who misses the tournament due to a knee surgery.

Germany’s Nadine Kessler will miss the tournament

With a roster constantly refreshed by the talent nurtured on the Frauen-Bundesliga, as of today probably the best women’s football league in the world, the squad, led by Silvia Neid since 2005, is a top contender every time it steps on the field and the depth on every position is enviable.

Starting on their own goal, the goalkeeper of the women’s Mannschaft is Nadine Angerer, the only goaltender (man or woman) to win the FIFA Player of the Year award (2013) and the Captain that is bound to retire at the end of the tournament. The centre-backs, Annike Krahn and Saskia Bartusiak have over 200 international caps between themselves and the full-backs available are all relatively young, yet experienced, energetic and consistent, from Leonie Maier and Jennifer Cramer (both 22-years-old) to Bianca Schmidt (25) and Tamea Kemme (23). The defence, as a whole, lacks some speed and strength, but it shouldn’t be a weak link, something the midfield won’t be either.

Lena Goessling, Kessler‘s long-time partner, both at the national team and club (Wolfsburg) level, is an excellent all-around player and versatile 28-year-old Simone Laudehr will fill for the missing piece, connecting the play with the fantastic creative force of the team, Dszenisfer Marozsan. The 23-year-old FFC Frankfurt star is a little banged-up at the start of the tournament but should recover well in time for the round-robin matches, when she will delight the crowds with her imagination, soft touch, technique and capacity to place the ball everywhere, whether through pinpoint passes or decisive shots.

And if this wasn’t enough, spearheading the attack there’s a triple threat that has combined for 124 international goals. The youngest of the trio is the versatile Alexandra Popp (24-years-old), usually deployed wide on the national team to make space for the devastating goal scoring ability of Celia Sasic and Anja Mittag, who impelled the team during the qualifiers with a combined total of 20 goals. Sasic, the striker of the current European Champions FFC Frankfurt, is coming to Canada looking to boast the numbers stamped on her next contract, after the deal with the German club expired, and Mittag, after several seasons terrorizing defences on the Swedish league, will join PSG in the fall. With a blend of physicality, terrific finishing abilities and the support of Marozsan, the German attack will run wild against the opposing defences.

Germany’s attacking trio gets congratulated by midfielder Lena Goessling (right)

On the bench, a trio of young attacking threats looms, getting ready to take a spot on the starting eleven in the near future: Midfielder Melanie Leupolz and forward Lena Lotzen, both 21-years-old from Bayern Munich, were already part of the winning squad in 2013, as was Freiburg’s winger Sara Dabritz, and their role will be even bigger this time.

The number one ranked team in the World is the top favourite on the tournament based on their amount of talent and ability to overpower every team it faces. Anything but a presence on Vancouver’s Final would be a huge surprise, and Germany has excellent chances of becoming the first country holding, at the same time, the men’s and women’s World Cup crown.

The five aforementioned teams are the top favourites to lift the Women’s World Cup but the field of strong candidates can be extended to include, at least, three more teams.
The hosts, Canada, are coming off a bronze medal in London 2012, their best result in any major event, and hope to go even further with the support of their public. Just get the USA out of their way, since the Americans have eliminated Canada every time the Reds got out of the group phase.

Christine Sinclair, the captain, inspirational leader and top goal scorer (154 goals in 224 caps) in the history of the team, is the one inevitably leading the way and the 32-year-old is absolutely essential if they plan to transform a hardworking, solid but unspectacular group into a title contender. That probably won’t happen, but Canada will cause problems with an assortment of defenders and midfielders of good quality, headlined by 19-year-old centre-back Kadeisha Buchanan. They lack creativity, though, with Sophie Schmidt has one of the few capable of helping Sinclair setting up offensive chances. 17-year-old midfielder Jessie Fleming is the biggest promise of the country’s football scene and watching her evolution will be an interesting under-the-radar treat.

Norway’s Ada Hegerberg

Two Scandinavian nations complete the list of outside contenders, with Norway, coached by Even Pellerud, who occupied the place during the golden age of their female footballing success, the 90’s, trying to rekindle the lost magic. The Norwegian are big, athletic, have one of the most exciting strikers in the world, Olympique Lyon’s Ada Hegerberg, a 19-year-old burly prodigy, but lack explosive offensive talent and technical skills to be a real menace, even more without the injured Caroline Hansen, the dazzling 20-year-old winger from Wolfsburg. Veterans Solveig Gulbrandsen and Trine Ronning, versatile D/M Maren Mjelde and forward Isabell Herlovsen are other players to watch.

Moreover, Sweden relies on a trio of top players that is already on the wrong side of the 30’s: Nilla Fischer, a big, strong centre-back, team captain Caroline Seger, a cerebral midfielder that charges up and down the pitch, and forward Lotta Schelin, one of the most prolific strikers of the last decade, with 80 goals amassed for the national team and 203 in just 194 games over the last seven years at Olympique Lyon. The 31-year-old is tall, elusive, smart, skilled and a great finisher with her feet and head, or, in short, one of the most complete goal scorers in the women’s game. Montpellier’s Sofia Jakobsson, who exploded after scoring a hat-trick against Germany earlier this year, and fellow attacker Kosovare Asllani are also interesting players but not at the level of the three mentioned before, and, because of that, this may be Sweden’s last chance in a while at a major international title.

Dark horses (or some other teams and stars I wanted to write about and had to place somewhere):

England: A rapidly improving domestic league, boosted by the presence of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, has improved the competition provided to the best English players, but the team lacks talent to fight the top teams. Eniola Aluko, the shifty Chelsea forward, is their best player, partnering on the attack with Man City’s Toni Duggan, but she’s not a Sasic, a Morgan, or a Schelin, and the other recognizable names (Jill Scott, captain Fara Williams, Alex Scott, Karen Carney,) are just good. The Lionesses resemble Canada, but without a legend like Sinclair and the home factor.

The rest of the European contingent: Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland are all debutants and each team has its own superstar.

Frankfurt’s Veronica Boquete, the Spanish captain, has been one of the best European players for some time but never had a major nation’s tournament to shine on. It’s her opportunity and the little creative midfielder will be free to display her superb ball control with either foot, vision and poise, traits that have earned a comparison with some guy named Andrés Iniesta.

Veronica Boquete and Spain are taking part on their first Women’s World Cup

The Swiss, who have advanced past any qualifiers for the first time, like to attack a lot and their best players are, understandably, offensive starlets. Lyon’s Lara Dickenmann and Frankfurt’s Ana Maria Crnogorcevic are lynchpins in creating goal scoring chances but the true magician is Rosengard’s Ramona Bachmann, a feisty, rambunctious dynamo with off-the-charts imagination that promises to light up the synthetic fields of Canada.

Finally, the Dutch have Bayern Munich’s winger/striker Vivianne Miedema, a 19-year-old phenomenon that has already earned comparisons with…guess who…Arjen Robben (too easy!). Quick and effusive, Miedema willed a really young team (14 of the 23 players have less than 25 years) towards Canada, scoring 16 times during the qualifiers, and has already collected 19 goals in just 25 appearances with the national team. The Netherlands squad is obviously inexperienced and prone to defensive craters but the games they’ll play will surely be a lot of fun to watch.

Australia and Nigeria: These talented teams share group D with USA and Sweden, composing the proverbial Group of Death, hence one of them should go home after just three games (unless Sweden makes a real mess…). However, should they go through, a scare for a powerhouse may be in order.

The Matildas (that’s Australia, of course) are used to get to the round robin phase on international tournaments and have gifted players all over the field, forming a team capable of competing with everyone. The star is 30-year-old Lisa de Vanna and her devastating speed up front, but 21-year-old Samantha Kerr, 20-year-old Caitlin Foord (the best young player in the 2011 World Cup at age…16) and 22-year-old pigmy (154 cm..) Katrina Gorry are youngsters to watch on an explosive team that’s ranked 10th in the World. Meanwhile, Kate Gill, the Aussie’s all-time leading scorer, was left out of the roster for the event because coach Alen Stajcic thought he had better options…

The Matildas are looking to surprise some teams in Canada

Nigeria is, by far, the best African team and it’s built around the players that lost the under-20 World Cup finals of 2010 and 2014. As usual with the continent’s representatives, the roster is electric, fast and intense but lacks tactical knowledge, which can doom their chances, even if some of their best players already play abroad. Forwards Francisca Ortega (Washington Spirit, USA) and Desire Oparanozie (Guingamp, France) are two examples but none is close to the level of 20-year-old Asisat Oshoala, an unstoppable force after picking up speed with the ball.

The Liverpool player won the BBC Women’s Player of the Year award recently, and last year stormed through the youth World Cup, gathering the Golden Ball and Golden Boot, returning now to Canada to lead a team that will thrive on quick counter attacks.