The 2019 Women’s World Cup, Group B: Calculated Gambles
Germany 1-0 Spain
Despite what we might have seen on Tuesday night in Reims, women’s football can be just as much determined by the narrowest of margins as the men’s game. On Wednesday afternoon in Valenciennes, Germany met Spain in a match between one of the traditional powerhouses of European women’s football and the team that has arguably made the biggest leaps forward in the game over the last three or four years. Experience won out in the end, but only just. Germany hadn’t looked all that impressive in beating China by a goal to nil in their opening match, a match in which China hit the post in the first half and created other chances which might, on another day, have resulted in a goal. Spain, meanwhile, had to come from a goal down to beat South Africa and needed two penalty kicks to help them on their way.
It turned out to be a tight, tense match. It was decided by a goal that was one part box-foxing and one part horrendously hesitant and muddle-headed defending. There were three minutes to play of the first half when the goal came. Alexandra Popp’s powerful downward header was blocked by goalkeeper Sandra Panos, but defender Marta Torrejon, facing her own goal and five yards out, dillied and dallied rather than putting it into touch, allowing Sara Däbritz to slide in and touch it over for her. Spain had more possession and one more goalscoring opportunity than Germany, but for all that it never really felt as though Germany were under intolerable and the chances created by Spain were hardly clear-cut. These were, however, clearly two technically gifted teams and this match was welcome fare after the gruel on display the night before.
It was also a result of significance. The runners-up will be playing each other in the second round of the competition whilst the the third-placed team will play one of the other group winners. It now looks likely – though not quite certain yet – that Germany will win this group, but they haven’t been particularly convincing in either game that they’ve narrowly won. It’s likely that they have more in the tank, of course, and these two wins have achieved their goal – to smooth Germany’s course towards the semi-finals. Spain should probably focus upon getting themselves over the line whether in second place or third, before they start giving consideration to anything else.
China 1-0 South Africa
It’s tight at the top. Germany’s win against Spain put them through to the next round, and China’s win against South Africa at Parc des Princes this evening has now set up a fascinating final match for second place against Spain. A draw in that match will probably be enough to get both teams through to the next round of the competition, but the runners-up in this group will almost certainly be playing the United States of America in the next round of the competition and, should they somehow get through that, they’ll most likely have to play France in the quarter-finals. As things stand, Spain are in second place and China are in third, but the irony is that the team that finishes in second place in the group will almost certainly have a more difficult match in the next stage in the tournament, if only because the USA are likely the strongest team in the tournament at present. The team that finishes third will have to play the winners of Group C, which is currently tied between Australia, Brazil and Italy.
Having lost their opening match against Germany, though, China needed a win from their match against South Africa at Parc des Princes last night and they got it, thanks to a volleyed first half goal from Li Ying, who also stood out in their opening match against Germany. South Africa again gave it everything, but ran out of steam every time the ball reached the final third of the pitch. They’ve performed with considerable credit for a team making its debut in the Womens World Cup finals, but with two games played it would require something approaching a miracle – a big win in their final match against Germany and, most likely, results to go their way elsewhere – to get through to the next round.
For China, however, the final round of group matches now takes on the look of a game of “dare.” Given the choice, it seems unlikely that they would rather play the USA than any of the teams in Group C, all of which would want them wanting to avoid beating Spain in their final match. However, their pathway to the next round as a third-placed qualifier isn’t assured yet and defeat against Spain might see them eliminated altogether, either in bottom place (should South Africa somehow win against Germany) or through not being one of the top four third placed qualifiers. Therefore, a draw would make their passage look more certain and give them easier looking opponents in the second round. Even all of this, however, has to be considered in the light of the importance of maintaining the momentum that comes with winning matches. It’s all a roll of the dice, but they are at least still in the tournament. It promises to be a most unusual atmosphere next week, when China take on Spain in their final group match knowing that a draw is the result that they probably want.