FIFA Women’s World Cup – Group D

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 examine Group D which features Argentina, former winners Japan, debutants Scotland and my home country, England.

Argentina

Current FIFA Ranking: 37

3/8 qualifications

Best placing – Group stages

Having finished third at last year’s Copa America Feminina, Argentina were required to playoff against Panama of the CONCACAF. They secured a 5-1 aggregate victory and return to the World Cup Finals for the first time in 12 years.

Coach Carlos Borrello led did nine years in his first stint with Argentina’s Women, winning a Sudamericano Femenino with la Albiceleste in 2006 – their only continental championship. He returned two years ago and has looked to improve his squad by taking them out of their comfort zone by playing more challenging opponents. In this year’s Nations Cup in Australia they were defeated in every one of their matches (to South Korea, New Zealand and the hosts) but Borrello believes that the experience of “knowing our reality” and “getting used to playing in front of bigger crowds” will stand them in good stead in France.

A growing number of the Argentinian squad are plying their trade in Spain (eight have made the switch to date), while striker Florencia ‘Sole’ Jaimes has headed for France having been signed by Lyon last year based on a good scoring record for Santos in Brazil. Jaimes made a few cameo appearances for the European Champions, scoring just the 1 league goal. 

The Head Coach is seeing improvement in his players, but Uruguay are the only team that Argentina have beaten in a senior international in 2019.  Getting out of the group looks a tall order, so a potential scrap with whoever doesn’t start quickly enough for third would appear to be their best bet.

One to watch: Estefania Banini (Attacker, Washington Spirit)

Estefania Banini, Argentina

Having won a league title with Chile’s Colo-Colo every year that she played for them, plus the 2012 Copa Libertadores Femenina, Banini sought a more full-bodied challenge with American club Washington Spirit in 2015. Since then she’s been able to mix in loans with Spanish clubs during the NWSL off-season.

Genuinely comfortable with both feet, Banini is a creative player who can work on either flank or in a freer role at 10. She thinks quickly and has a burst of acceleration which makes her more than adept at solving problems in tight situations. She’s another one of those players where it’s not a great idea to give her free kicks near the box and was nominated for several goal of the week awards during the 2018 NWSL season.

England

Current FIFA Ranking: 3

5/8 qualifications

Best placing – 3rd Place 2015, Canada

The Lionesses qualified entirely fuss-free for this World Cup.  They’re a very good side, but it’s not unfair to say that the campaign revealed the Women’s game in Europe, while coming on in leaps and bounds, still lacks a bit of depth in terms of tournament quality squads.

Head Coach Phil Neville took over in January 2018. As a player, he was a full back for Manchester United and England, and later did a very respectable turn as a defensive midfielder for Everton, where I thought he played his best football.  The appointment of Neville was the subject of some criticism at the time as he had precious little managerial experience, despite his glittering club career. Questions arose in the media over whether the FA were taking it seriously enough.

Manchester City’s Steph Houghton is captain and leads a solid back line which also includes world class Lyon right-back Lucy Bronze. There are several playmakers in the group notably Chelsea’s Fran Kirby who links midfield and attack with clever movement off the ball, a range of incisive passing and the ability to chip in with goals. Jodie Taylor has spearheaded the attack in recent years but has not scored for England in 2019 so will face stiff competition the resurgent Ellen White.

There are some important players missing, though. Arsenal’s Jordan Nobbs struggled with injury at the last world cup and will miss this one having ruptured her ACL in a Super League game. Hard-working midfielder Izzy Christiansen is also ruled out. But England will still feel they have enough in the group to compete, indeed their stated aim is to win the competition.

Whether this happens will depend on their ability to keep the ball later in the tournament against technically stronger opponents. Recent games with Canada and Spain saw the Lionesses struggle to retain possession against teams that press high, but England have proved that they can find ways to grind out wins.  At Euro 2017, they ‘smashed and grabbed’ a 1-0 quarter final victory against France having soaked up a huge amount of pressure and then striking on the counter.  Earlier this year they went to America and won the SheBelieves Cup fighting off the US, Brazil and current Group D opponents, Japan.

England made the semi-finals in 2015 beating the German’s for 3rd place. Arguably the current group is stronger, so hitting their peak at the right time and a bit of luck on the way (please) and it’s not beyond realm of possibility that they could end up contesting the final.

One to watch: Georgia Stanway (Midfielder, Manchester City)

Georgia Stanway, England

It might be just a tournament too early for Georgia if her coach feels he needs to go more defensive, but the swashbuckling 20-year old has just had a massive season in the FAWSL. She’s already got one league title and two FA Cup winner’s medals, to complement 22 goals in 51 league appearances from midfield. 

Already successful at youth level (she topped the scoring at the FIFA U-20s championships), Georgia looks after the ball well and has a keen eye for a pass. She’s at her best bursting through midfield and breaking defensive lines, and will always have a shot when it’s on.

Japan

Current FIFA Ranking: 7

8/8 qualifications

Best placing – Winners 2011, Germany

Don’t be fooled by Japan’s FIFA ranking. It might hint at also-ran, quarter final status, but they have form in the World Cup, appearing in the last two finals with the US and winning one of them in 2011.

Coach Asako Takakura has aimed for steady improvement of the squad since her appointment in 2016. She had a very successful career as a midfield player and has taken this experience into coaching by emphasising the need for on-field intelligence and technical, possession-based football that hinges on speed and movement, in contrast to what she sees as more physical styles in both Europe and North America.

Mana Iwabuchi is playing in her third finals and has been a mainstay in the Japan set-up since the age of 15 when she won Player of the Tournament at the U-17 event. She’s played domestic football in Germany and scored goals wherever she’s played without being prolific. Mizuho Sakaguchi is the midfield engine and can function anywhere through the middle from a ‘holding’ role to playing off the strikers. She has a 1 in 4 goal return, but her real value is as a hub player that links Japans’ play box-to-box with simple passes and efficient movement.

In the build up to this year’s tournament, Japan has taken on nearly all the big hitters in world football, with mixed results. France and England beat them pretty convincingly, and a win over Brazil at the SheBelieves Cup is their only success. But injured players have been returning and holding the number 1 and 2 seeds (USA and Germany) to draws in their own back yards suggests Coach Takakura and her team are still perfectly capable of reaching a third successive World Cup Finals.

One to watch: Saki Kumagai (Defensive Midfielder, Olympique Lyonnais)

Saki Kumagai, Japan

It seems like Kumagai has been around forever and yet she’s still only 28.  She made her debut for Japan at 17, later scored the winning penalty in the 2011 world cup final shootout with America and then went to Lyon in 2013, where she’s helped to win (to date) 6 league titles, 5 Coupe de France and 4 Champions League crowns. 

Saki is a model ‘CDM’, sat in front of the back four, anticipating and shutting down opposing attacks. She’s technically very good, happy to receive the ball anywhere, under any amount of pressure, then create a yard of space and pick a simple pass. Now a senior member of international set up, she is highly respected and a cool head to have in the group at a time where Japan expects based on past glories.  

Scotland

Current FIFA Ranking: 20

1/8 qualifications

Best placing – N/A

Scotland secured their World Cup berth ahead of Switzerland on the final matchday of qualifying which was no mean feat. Their fans must spend a fair amount of their time on the edge of their seats as the team loves a comeback. During the campaign to reach France they turned around four matches from losing positions, which makes them nothing if not exciting and suggests their character is doggedly determined.

Scotland have been drawn with England once again, having faced off during the Euro 2017 Group stages. The Scots were without some key players that day and were thumped 6-0, but will surely relish a revenge rematch now that they are back to full strength. Given that they’ve beaten Brazil recently, Head Coach Shelley Kerr and her squad may feel that peak performances could get them beyond the group phase – which would be a significant achievement.   

For that to happen their big players have got to have big games. Kim Little’s impact then will be crucial to setting the tone for the Scots’ world cup campaign. Little will be supported in midfield by Manchester City playmaker, Caroline Weir, and Chelsea’s excellent young Erin Cuthbert. Cuthbert hammered in a cracking 25-yarder against Jamaica in a warm-up game last week which is well worth a YouTube watch.  Together they will attempt to supply opportunities for West Ham’s Jane Ross, who has scored 58 goals in 126 caps.

Coach Kerr was known during her playing days for being an uncompromising opponent who was tough, hard-working and combative. These attributes will be the absolute bare minimum we can expect from her players this summer, and they definitely have a goal threat, but they will need to be organised and solid at the back to have any chance of making the round of 16. Jamaica’s Khadija Shaw scored 2 goals in their recently friendly, both of which could have been avoided with better concentration and awareness.

One to watch – Kim Little (Midfielder, Arsenal)

Kim Little, Scotland

Arsenal’s Kim Little has over half a century of international goals and is the complete midfielder. Highly regarded both sides of the Atlantic as one of the best players on the planet, the 28-year old is a born finisher with a phenomenal domestic goals-to-games ratio (221 in 239 at time of writing).

Typically, she plays deeper for Scotland where her excellent anticipation, eye for a pass and full-blooded tenacity can make more of an impact. But, should they need a goal, expect to see her push higher to drive attacks and look to ghost into the penalty area.

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