FIFA Women’s World Cup – Group A

So, here we go.  The FIFA Women’s World Cup begins on the 7th June 2019 with 24 teams contesting six groups to reach the round of 16 knock out stage.  Let’s start with a look at Group A, which features hosts France, South Korea, African Champions Nigeria and former winners Norway.

France

Current FIFA Ranking 4

4/8 qualifications

Best placing – 4th in Germany, 2011

France have perhaps underachieved in recent tournaments, given that they’ve developed a considerable crop of world-class players through the Clairefontaine Academy. The European women’s game is dominated by French Champions Olympique Lyon, and Les Lyonnaises are choc-full of players who will feature with Les Bleues this year.

Fourth place is their best at a world cup to date, although it’s worth tempering that statement by acknowledging that the French were relatively late to the party on women’s football and have only qualified a handful of times.  Nonetheless, they travelled to Canada in 2015 as one of the favourites but succumbed to the Germans in a penalty shoot-out – as so many do. In 2011, the mighty US team put paid to their chances in the semi-finals.

At the Euros they’ve fared little better.  Scintillating displays during the group stages haven’t been converted into knock-out triumphs. Winning the SheBelieves Cup in 2017 suggested the squad was ready to tear up that year’s major championships, but England beat them 1-0 in the last eight despite France utterly dominating possession. That match was their third successive failure at the Euro quarter final stages.

The French squad is led by Head Coach, Corinne Diacre. She has 121 French caps so it’s fair to say she’s walked the walk.  The 44-year old has a strong character and demands an exemplary attitude from her players, prioritising the collective squad over the indulging of stars.  Just as well because France have a job lot of stars, led by talismanic captain Amandine Henry – some pedigree in that surname of course! – who leads the team from the heart of midfield and should be a standout player for the French.

In summary: The French team is well organised, has players with pace and physical presence. If the home crowds get behind them, nice looking possession-based football could turn into winning football that takes them a long way through this tournament.

One to watch: Eugénie Le Sommer (Forward, Olympique Lyon)

Eugénie Le Sommer, France

Eugénie plays for European Champions, Olympique Lyon, where she has averaged nearly a goal per game since 2010. The very definition of a defender’s nightmare, Le Sommer can play wide left of a three or as a central striker. She can drift between defensive lines or run in behind the centre backs. Genuinely two footed, she’s a good finisher, excellent at improvising in crowded areas of the pitch and, at just 5’3”, also surprisingly able to get her head on crosses to supplement her goal tally.

Korea Republic (South Korea)

Current FIFA Ranking 14

3/8 qualifications

Best placing – RO16 in Canada, 2015

Korea Republic, as FIFA has them down as, will not be fancied by many to get beyond the group stages of this year’s tournament given that they are taking on the hosts, the best side in Africa and a steadily re-emerging Norwegian team. To say that they scraped into the World Cup is not wholly unfair. But finishing fifth at the Asian Cup was enough and they sealed the deal with a bit of a flourish, hammering the Philippines 5-0.

A record of three wins, four defeats and a draw to date in 2019 indicate they are competitive but look a little closer you’ll conclude that the defeats – to China, Australia and Sweden – suggest they are not battle ready against the better sides.

Head Coach, Yoon Deok-Yeo, had an eight-year professional playing career in the men’s game including appearances for South Korea at Italia ’90. He’s focused on building an organised team with a solid defence. European and African sides are regarded as physically stronger, so emphasis is also given to good technique, passing and movement which all require high levels of fitness to execute well.

Cho So-hyun is the team captain and someone who may be familiar to those of you in England who watched the 2019 Women’s FA Cup Final as she plays in midfield for West Ham United.  The 30-year old is South Korea’s most capped player and chips in with a few goals; none more notable than the equaliser against Spain than propelled her side into the Round of 16 for the first time.

In summary: In 2015 the Koreans lost to France at the round of 16 stage but beat Spain on the way to getting out of the group so they aren’t just going to be rolled over. History shows that one surprise result could be the making of them.  But they will probably lack the necessary fire power to trouble well drilled opponents.

One to watch: Ji So-Yun (Midfielder, Chelsea)

Ji So-Yun, Korea Republic

Fans of Chelsea’s Women’s team have been enjoying the clever and instinctive attacking play of Ji since 2014, during which time she’s helped to secure a league and FA Cup double, including bundling in a Wembley winner in 2015. Blues Manager, Emma Hayes, hailed her as “one of the best midfielders in the world” when they signed her and has been vindicated with Ji making WSL team of the year four times in five years.

Ji will be the Koreans’ creative hub, drifting deep to pick up the ball and get attacks going; moments later, arriving in the penalty area to finish them off. Opponents should avoid giving her dead ball opportunities around the box.

Nigeria

Current FIFA Ranking 38

8/8 qualifications

Best placing – Quarter Final in USA, 1999

Nigeria are one of a select few international women’s teams that have qualified for every World Cup tournament. I’m looking forward seeing the Super Falcons and their passionate fans. There’s a nice ‘wild card’ feel to them on the world stage. The squad contains a group of players currently active in eighteen different teams, across eight countries and four continents. So, I guess the question is: how’s it all going to come together?

They’ve performed well at U-17 and U-20 level but this hasn’t translated into success on the senior international stage just yet. They’ve won just three games at the World Cup and two of those were in their run to the 1999 quarter final.

In Africa it’s a very different story. The Super Falcons have won 11 of 13 African Championships – never failing to make at least the last four – which clearly makes them stand out as CAF’s top team but does also rather raise the question of how seriously the other nations have been taking women’s football.

And this perhaps is the challenge for Nigeria. The recent WAFU Women’s Cup on the Ivory Coast yielded four wins and a draw, 22 goals and only 2 conceded. Their run in the 2019 Cyprus Cup, however, presented more robust competition. They lost to Belgium and Austria, edged out Slovakia in a seven-goal thriller and beat Thailand in a straight fight for seventh place.   

Head Coach Thomas Dennerby took the reins in 2018 and knows his onions having taken his home country, Sweden, to 3rd place in 2011. Delivering Nigeria’s best performance at a World Cup is his aim; no mean feat given the tournament now includes 24 teams. He’s acknowledged in interviews that tightening up on some of the organisational basics (like defending set pieces) will make them harder to beat but also wants to exploit his players’ natural flamboyance, power and athleticism.

In summary: The Super Falcons have some capable players, but the disparate nature of their club commitments means things need to gel quickly if they are to progress as far as the last eight. They weren’t prolific at the business end of the 2018 African Championships with 0-0 draws in both the semi-final and final, which hints at their character and certainly shows they know how to win a penalty shoot-out.

One to watch: Asisat Oshoala (Forward, FC Barcelona Femení)

Asisat Oshoala, Nigeria

Asisat Oshoala is a quick and powerful forward who plays alongside England’s Toni Duggan at FC Barcelona.  Incredibly she’s been named African Women’s Footballer of the Year three times since 2014 and is still only 24 years old – having also been named best player at her U-20 World Cup. 

Most comfortable up front, she is capable of playing a more attacking midfield role in the international set-up which gives her coach some tactical options.  She’s maintained a goal per game average at Barcelona and scores regularly for her country. Oshoala’s speed enables her to get in behind opposing defences and she has a nice line in getting the run on her markers for back post headers.

Norway

Current FIFA Ranking 12

8/8 qualifications

Best placing – Winner in Sweden, 1995

The was a time when Norway were a leading powerhouse in Women’s football. They developed their pedigree with wins at the 1987 and 1993 European Championships and followed this up by winning the 1995 World Cup and the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Since the turn of the century they have remained consistently strong performers – particularly at the European Championships.

It would have been devastating, then, when the wheels fell off the wagon at Euro 2017 with three straight defeats and not even a goal to show for their efforts. This failure demanded a response and the players stepped up by topping their World Cup qualifying group and beating Euro hosts and champions, the Netherlands, in a winner takes all final game.

Captain Maren Mjelde is a very composed and versatile player who marshals the Norwegian backline. A strong competitor, the 29-year old plays in England for Chelsea. As well as providing leadership and experience she’s capable of chipping in with goals and scored a memorable direct free kick against Germany in the 2015 tournament.

Martin Sjögren became head coach at the end of 2016. He arrived with an excellent track record in Sweden and has looked to make the team more patient in possession and therefore more expansive, rather than continually direct. First place at the Algarve Invitational this year with three straight wins will have bred confidence but making bold predictions on Norway is not without egg-on-face risk. Since they qualified for the World Cup, they have beaten some useful sides, but fallen to Sweden, Japan and Canada, all of whom are likely to make the knock-out stages of the competition.

Sadly, for the Grasshoppers, the biggest story remains that of brilliant Lyon striker, Ada Hegerberg, who will not be representing Norway this year. In 2018, Hegerberg was the first recipient of the Ballon d’Or Féminin and racked up 38 goals in 66 caps for her country. However, she’s refused to play since 2017 due to continuing issues with the Norwegian Football Federation and the national team set-up. 

In summary: The pressure for scoring goals now falls on Emilie Haavi, Caroline Graham Hansen and Isabell Herlovsen (who rattled in a hat-trick against South Africa in last Sunday’s warm-up). If they can step up and fill Hegerberg’s shoes then reaching the last eight is eminently achievable. And once there, anything can happen…

One to watch: Caroline Graham Hansen (Right Winger, Wolfsburg)

Caroline Graham Hansen, Norway

Hansen has scored 27 goals in 83 appearances for German Bundesliga Champions Wolfsburg – not bad for winger who would typically have more responsibility for setting up opportunities.  She was part of the Norwegian squad that finished runners up at the 2013 Euros but missed the 2015 World Cup through injury.  She’ll be keen to make her mark on the tournament by demonstrating the pace, skill and goal threat that have made her a key player for her club side.

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