The 2019 Women’s World Cup, Group B: Fine Margins

Germany 1-0 China

Well, that was tighter than Germany probably either expected or wanted. It took a sixty-sixth minute goal from Giulia Gwinn to eventually edge this match, for much of which they were frustrated by resilient – and occasionally desperate – defending. Germany have had a mixed time of things recently, with disappointing results in last year’s She Believes Cup – with only a single point to show from matches against the USA, France and England – leading to the departure of previous coach Steffi Jones. With former German men’s international Horst Hrubesch taking interim charge for the remainder of last year, with Martina Voss-Tecklenburg being appointed as coach at the start of this year. Friendly wins against both France and Sweden have got the new manager off to a strong start, but German standards are high. This is, after all, the team that won the Women’s World Cup in both 2003 and 2007, and which won the Olympic gold medal in Brazil three years ago.

But China were obdurate. Indeed, there were times when they were bordering on violent, such was the fiery approach of their attempts to win from a German team which dominated possession. And when they did get it, they made good use of it. Well, almost. An early chance fell to Yang Li, whose shot was cleared when it appeared easier to score after she was put through following an underhit pass across the middle of the pitch by Germany’s Sara Doorsoun-Khajeh. On the whole, though, this was an outlier. Germany dominated, finding increasingly inventive ways to keep the ball out of the Chinese goal. Carolin Simon smacked the ball against the crossbar. Alexandra Popp headed onto the roof of the goal. But as the half wore on, China’s confidence grew, and shortly before half-time they hit the post themselves, again from Yang Li. Germany came through the final stages of the match without too many major issues, though. A solid start to the tournament for them, and certainly an obstacle overcome.

Spain 3-1 South Africa

Spain are a team on the rise. They only qualified for their first European Championship finals in 2013 and their first World Cup finals two years later, and this World Cup marks a fourth consecutive major tournament qualification, as though from out of nowhere. Even so, they required a few decisions to go their way in order to see off South Africa in their opening match. South Africa are also on the rise, though at nothing near the same rate. This tournament is their first World Cup finals and they’d struggled in recent friendly matches against European opposition, but they will come away from this match likely regretting a rashness in the penalty area that was a little unbecoming.

For a full forty-five minutes in Le Havre last night, it looked as though the shock result might just be on. After twenty-five minutes of soaking up Spanish possession, South Africa took a surprise lead when Thembi Kgatlana’s beautifully chipped shot dipped into the goal. South Africa held that lead until the seventieth minute, when the ball bounced off the arm of the South African captain and record appearance holder Janine Van Wyk to grant Spain a penalty, converted by Jennifer Hermoso. Thirteen minutes later, there was worse in store for South Africa when Nothando Vilakazi caught Lucia Garcia with a loose inside the penalty area immediately after clearing the ball. It was a second yellow card for Vilakazi after the VAR offered its verdict, and Mermoso added the second goal from the penalty spot.

There was no comeback from this. With a minute to play and SouthAfrica having committed more players forward than their defence could afford, Garcia broke, rounded the goalkeeper and rolled the ball into an open goal to seal the win for Spain. The margin of victory might have been a little flattering, and there was certainly a question mark hanging over the penalty kick that gave Spain the lead with seven minutes to play. Despite this, South Africa can take considerable confidence from a performance that saw them come up only a little short. They don’t seem to be in France solely to make up the numbers. Spain, meanwhile, remain something of a work in progress, much as they have been for the last seven or eight years. It’s difficult to imagine that one of the elite teams in the world game would have been required two penalty kicks to overcome this team, but they got the win, and that’s what matters more than anything else.