The 2019 Women’s World Cup: Groups A & B, The Final Countdown
Group A – France, Norway, Nigeria & South Korea
France continue to unimpress. They were less than sparkling during the second half of their opening match with South Korea, but this was ascribed to controlling the game at a rhythm in order to pace themselves. They needed a penalty kick to edge their way past Norway in their last match and scored a hilarious own goal in the same match, and last night they needed a twice-taken penalty kick to win their final group match against a hard-working but ultimately luckless Nigeria side.
It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that the Video Assistant Referee dealt the Nigerian team a triple blow, with just eleven minutes left to play. First, the VAR flagged up a foul by Ngozi Ebere on Viviane Asseyi which resulted in both a penalty kick for France and a second yellow card for Ebere. Wendie Renard stepped up to take the penalty kick and screwed her shot wide off the base of the post, whereupon the VAR interjected again, this time to show that the Nigeria goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie had taken half a step off her line before the kick was taken, allowing Renard a free hit which she duly took. Wendie Renard, who also scored that hilarious own goal against Norway last week but also scored two wonderful set-piece headers in their opening match against South Korea, is certainly having a busy tournament.
But do France really deserve the mantle of favourites that they’ve been carrying around for the last week and a half? The volume of players in their team from the best club side in the world, Olympique Lyonnais, would seem to indicate that they do, but something isn’t quite clicking once they get on the pitch. There is, however, a growing feeling that VAR is benefiting the “bigger” nations over the “smaller” ones at this tournament. Some teams enjoy more possession on the ball than others, so the argument goes, and this in turns makes it more likely that they will benefit from decisions that are viewed under a microscope.
And yes, the decisions that it makes might be “fair” in one sense of the word, but in a world in which teams which those with fewer resources can only win a match by snatching a goal on the break then defending for their lives in order to preserve it, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that one of the long-term effects of VAR will be an even greater entrenching of existing hierarchies. There is a certain irony to the fact that this is becoming crystal clear in this particular tournament.
As if to underline this, Norway needed two penalty kicks in their match against South Korea, one in each half converted by Caroline Graham Hansen and Isabell Herlovson, to edge their way to a two-one win. That’s four VAR-assisted goals in the last three matches in this group, all going to the more established nation. No-one is going to criticise teams for taking advantage of this state of affairs, but it increasingly feels as though the entire way in which this technology is used, from the fundamentals of what it is trying to achieve right the way through to the specifics of what it will and won’t be used for, needs a thorough review itself after this tournament ends.
Group B: Germany, Spain, China & South Africa
There were no surprises in Group B, where Germany finally stepped up a gear with a four-nil win against South Africa, a welcome glut of goals following two slightly edgy one-nil wins in their first two matches. Most notable of the four goalscorers was Wolfsburg’s Alexandre Popp, who scored her first goal of the tournament to give Germany a three goal cushion with five minutes of the first half left to play. It was Popp’s forty-seventh international goal in her ninety-ninth appearance for her country, and she’ll likely become a critical component of this German team as the tournament progresses. South Africa, meanwhile, have far from disgraced themselves at their first Women’s World Cup finals, and will reflect upon having been drawn in an extremely difficult group.
The group’s other match saw Spain and China play out a goalless draw which sees both nations through to the next stage of the competition. It was a match which demonstrated both the pros and cons of the twenty-four team tournament. On the one hand, there was something to play for going into this match which might not otherwise have been there had only the top two been going through from each group. On the other, though, with both China and Spain knowing that a draw would put both teams on four points and with four points being enough to edge them both through, this ended up as a somewhat soporific affair with neither team (understandably) wanting to risk too much in order to score. The better of the chances fell to Spain and it was an excellent performance from the Chinese goalkeeper Peng Shimeng, who made one particularly critical save from Patri Guijarro with six minutes left to play, which really kept China in the competition.
Spain, meanwhile, face a challenge in the next round. They will now play either the United States of America or a Sweden team that would have just beaten the United States of America in the second round of the competition. It might have been the knowledge that this was awaiting them which pushed them into more attacking positions throughout the latter stages of this match, but it seems likely that they will at least offer a greater challenge that either of those two teams have faced in their first two group matches. Should Spain get through this match, they are then likely to face a quarter-final match against France, presuming the hosts can get through their second round match as well. Should they contrive to find a way through this particular minefield, there’ll surely be no doubting that they deserve a place in the semi-finals of the competition.