Lyon Or Bust: OL At The Women’s World Cup

It’s not unusual for the world’s best female soccer players to converge on Lyon over the summer . . . it’s just that usually they’re all wearing rouge et bleu and gearing up for preseason action. But this summer brings an international twist as the FIFA 2019 Women’s World Cup sweeps across France. All roads lead to Lyon, as the Parc OL will have the privilege of hosting the tournament’s semifinals (July 2 and 3) and final (July 7).

OL Féminin sends a tournament-leading 16 players (including the all-but-officially-announced Nikita Parris) to compete with their respective nations for women’s soccer’s greatest prize. Set aside hoisting the trophy–Which World Cup-bound Fenottes stand the best chance of actually advancing to the final four to compete at their home stadium? We’ve ranked the players and their national teams’ chances below.

7. Sole Jaimes / Argentina

Group D
World Rank: 37

Matches:
Monday, June 10, 18h local time (12 p.m. ET / 9 a.m. PT): vs. Japan
Friday, June 14, 21h local time (3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT): vs. England
Wednesday, June 19, 21h local time (3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT): vs. Scotland

Sole Jaimes has never been called upon to take the field for game action at Groupama Stadium, remaining on the bench for all four of OL’s games at the big stadium since she joined the squad in January. She won’t get her first touches at the Parc OL this summer either. Getting any kind of result in the tournament would be a big accomplishment for Jaimes’s inexperienced Argentina squad, and it would take nothing short of an absolute miracle for them to reach the semifinals.

Argentina qualified for the tournament by beating Panama in a two-leg inter-continental playoff between CONMEBOL’s 3rd-place finisher and CONCACAF’s 4th-place finisher in qualifying. But their results since then haven’t been particularly inspiring. They’ve primarily prepared for the tournament by facing off against university teams, but their few run-outs against World Cup-competition have been one-sided affairs. In the Cup of Nations hosted by Australia in the spring, Argentina was held scoreless over three games against South Korea (5-0), New Zealand (2-0), and the Matildas (3-0).

Their group won’t do them any favors either. They’ve drawn into a tough Group D with England, Scotland, and Japan. FiveThirtyEight’s statistical analysis gives Argentina just a 15% chance of making the knockout rounds–the lowest probability of any team in the tournament.

Sole will see plenty of her OL teammates in the group stages, but she won’t see much of Lyon. Hopefully Argentina’s return to the World Cup after a 12-year absence inspires more investment in women’s football and a more competitive squad in four years.

6. Saki Kumagai / Japan

Group D
World Rank: 7

Matches:
Monday, June 10, 18h local time (12 p.m. ET / 9 a.m. PT): vs. Argentina
Friday, June 14, 15h local time (9 a.m. ET / 6 a.m. PT): vs. Scotland
Wednesday, June 19, 21h local time (3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT): vs. England

We aren’t all that far away from Japan standing at the pinnacle of women’s football. It was Saki Kumagai‘s game winner in a shootout against the Americans that carried Japan to the title in the 2011 World Cup. Four years later Japan against found themselves in the final against the Americans, but were forced to settle for silver. While it would be a mistake to count them out completely, don’t count on Japan making a third-straight final appearance.

Kumagai, the captain, leads a young team into the tournament as the Nadeshiko are, in popular parlance, a squad caught between generations. Kumagai aside, many of the legends have moved on and promising youngsters like Jun Endo are probably still a step too far behind to make a run this tournament.

Recent results have been modest. Japan opened the She Believes Cup with a very positive 2-2 draw against the USA in which they equalized twice. A comfortable win over a Brazil team in free-fall added more reason for optimism. But England brought them back to Earth with a 3-0 thumping and a 3-1 loss to France in April didn’t do anything to suggest that the Nadeshiko can threaten the favorites. Recent draws against Germany and Spain are a better sign, but Japan should still be considered strongly second-tier.

The path to Lyon is also fraught with threats. Japan are unlikely to surpass the England side that beat them soundly just a few months ago, and even if they hold off Scotland for second place in the group, they would run smack into the winner of Canada and Netherlands’ group for a brutal Round of 16 matchup.

Saki has hoisted the trophy before. This year, she’s more likely to watch one of her Lyon teammates lift it than repeat the feat.

5. Kadeisha Buchanan / Canada

Group E
World Rank: 5

Matches:
Monday, June 10, 21h local time (3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT): vs. Cameroon
Saturday, June 15, 21h local time (3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT): vs. New Zealand
Thursday, June 20, 18h local time (12 p.m. ET / 9 a.m. PT): vs. Netherlands

4. Shanice van de Sanden / Netherlands

Group E
World Rank: 8

Matches:
Tuesday, June 11, 15h local time (9 a.m. ET / 6 a.m. PT): vs. New Zealand
Saturday, June 15, 15h local time (9 a.m. ET / 6 a.m. PT): vs. Cameroon
Thursday, June 20, 18h local time (12 p.m. ET / 9 a.m. PT): vs. Canada

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? In this case, one of them coasts to the semifinals while the other has to run the gauntlet to get a sniff of Lyon. Group E might just be the hardest one to call, as Kadeisha Buchanan leads Canada’s ultra-stiff defense into battle against Shanice van de Sanden‘s score-happy Netherlands squad.

The stakes of the battle between best buddies are high. The winner of Group E likely hits a modest Japan squad in the first round of the knockouts before facing off against the best of Australia, Italy, Brazil, or Jamaica. Those may be big names, but Brazil has lost 9 straight and may not even have a healthy Marta to limit the damage, Australia has shown exactly zero signs of defense recently, and Italy and Jamaica are still working their way up to the main stage. In short, a very manageable path to the final four. Compare that to the path the second-place finisher will have to take: a likely Round of 16 matchup with an upward-trending Sweden team followed by a showdown with second-ranked Germany. Not so manageable.

Canada’s defense has been remarkable, allowing just a single goal in eight games in 2019, which means they could frustrate opponents. The question is whether their forwards can contribute the goals they need. Captain Christine Sinclair will break the international goals record during the tournament, but she’ll need more support than she’s likely to get from youngsters Jordyn Huitema and Janine Beckie if Canada want to really challenge for the title.

Scoring isn’t likely to be a big problem for the frenetic attack of the 2017 European champs, as the Netherlands love to put up crooked numbers. They’ve been on fire rolling into the World Cup with a statement 3-0 win over Australia following a 7-0 festival against Chile. Van de Sanden has been a key piece, as the wizard of Champions League final assists contributed a brace against Australia and a goal against Chile. The Oranjeleeuwinnen are not immune to inconsistency, however. After winning the Euros, they surprisingly needed a playoff to qualify for France and a wildly disappointing Algarve Cup included odd losses to Spain and Poland. But if they can capture just a bit of that 2017 magic, they’ll run past a lot of people on the road to the final.

It seems most likely that the Canadian wall will crack up against the relentlessness of the Netherlands. We’re picking Netherlands to take the top spot in the group, and van de Sanden to bring the best hair in the tournament to Lyon in July.

3. Eight Players / France

Group A
World Rank: 4

Matches:
Friday, July 7, 21h local time (3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT): vs. South Korea
Wednesday, June 12, 21h local time (3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT) vs. Norway
Monday, June 17, 21h local time (3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT) vs. Nigeria

Can’t get much more motivated than this. A France team looking to upend a reputation as underachievers by winning the World Cup on home soil at the home field of the core of their squad? We’d love to say no pressure, but there’s no way around the fact that this is the moment for Les Bleues.

France have everything they need to bring home the trophy. They are solid at every position, in large part thanks to les Lyonnaises. It starts with Sarah Bouhaddi in goal coming off a very strong second-half of the season in which she delivered big saves and results for OL against PSG, Lille, and most memorably, Chelsea. It’s a major tournament, so every commentator will seem contractually obligated to ponder whether her supposed inconsistency in net will prove costly.

But sometimes tired narratives are just tired narratives. The last time Bouhaddi conceded more than a single goal for France was June 13, 2015–a 2-0 loss to Colombia in the last World Cup, nearly four full years ago. How does that compare to other top keepers? Karen Bardsley (England) and Almuth Schult (Germany) have both conceded multiple goals since the start of 2019. Alyssa Naeher (USA) and Lydia Williams (Australia) have done in multiple times in 2019. Expect Bouhaddi to keep France close in every game.

She’ll have plenty of help from a Lyon-heavy defense, led by Les Bleues’ very own field general, the queen herself, Wendie Renard. Renard, who will stand a full five centimeters taller than every other player at the tournament, brings her trademark defensive dominance, set-piece threat, and pure intimidation factor to the field.

She’ll likely be joined by Griedge Mbock and Amel Majri, assuming both are healthy and ready to go for kickoff as Coach Corinne Diacre claims. Majri should be in good shape, but if Mbock is available for the opening game against South Korea, it will be fairly shocking considering she should be nowhere close to recovered from a reported knee sprain suffered in last warm-up match against Japan.

Captain Amandine Henry is also returning from back trouble that made her a late scratch from the final warm-up match a week ago. She’ll see if she can one-up the absolut banger she scored against Mexico in the World Cup group stage four years ago.

Up front, Eugénie Le Sommer looks to be the fourth Fenotte to bounce back from injury worries in time for the opening match. Le Sommer is among the favorites to take home the tournament’s Golden Boot. She picked up goals in eight straight appearances for France between March and October of last year before quieting a bit recently.

She’ll be joined in attack by Delphine Cascarino who hopes to keep riding the wave of her remarkable revenge tour. It was barely seven months ago, on Halloween, that Corinne Diacre announced her France squad for a November friendly against Brazil and left Cascarino off the list after a few lackluster performances. Cascarino took it personally, scoring a brace inside 10 minutes in Champions League action that same day, earning a late call up to France as an injury replacement for Le Sommer, and finding the back of the net in the Brazil game. She then delivered an eye-popping performance against an inexperience and overmatched outside back in France’s dominant 3-1 win over the USA in January. Her zero to hero arc is among France’s best storylines.

Emelyne Laurent, who spent the second half of the season on loan to EA Guingamp rounds out the Lyon 8 and provides a late game speed option. Her strong performance in last year’s U-20 World Cup earned her the inside track over PSG prodigy Marie-Antoinette Katoto, and Diacre touted her ability to potentially blitz into the box and earn a penalty if France needs a second-half boost.

France has had a dominant year-plus leading up to the World Cup, including wins over the United States, Germany, Canada, Australia, Brazil, and Japan–all of which range from contenders to powerhouses for this year’s tournament. Their group is not easy, but it is manageable. And the home crowd should give them an added boost, as with Netherlands in 2017.

But there remains one enormous obstacle between the Lyon players in bleu, blanc, et rouge and Lyon: The United States. Assuming France and the U.S. each win their groups and their first knockout match, the two favorites will meet in Paris in the quarterfinals with a spot in Lyon on the line. That match pops as the potential showpiece of the tournament. The Americans are the world’s top-ranked team and no one matches them for depth. But France is 2-0-1 against the U.S. in their last three meetings, and the January match on French soil was a one-sided affair in favor of les Bleues. If anyone can knock out the holders, it may just be France. Bouhaddi, Henry, Renard, ELS & co. won’t want to watch from the sidelines as the final matches play out on their home turf.

2. Dzsenifer Marozsan, Carolin Simon / Germany

Group B
World Rank: 2

Matches:
Saturday, June 8, 15h local time (9 a.m. ET / 6 a.m. PT): vs. China
Wednesday, June 12, 18h local time (12 p.m. ET / 9 a.m. PT): vs. Spain
Monday, June 17, 18h local time (12 p.m. ET / 9 a.m. PT): vs. South Africa

Reports of Germany’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. It all started at the 2017 Euros, when Denmark upset the reigning Olympic champs in the quarterfinals. That raised a few eyebrows. The whispers only louder after Iceland shocked the Germans on home soil with a 3-2 win in World Cup qualifying. That was a followed with a horrific showing in the 2018 edition of the She Believes Cup, punctuated by a brutal 3-0 loss to France. And that’s about when many people wrote off Germany.

But Germany has recovered. They haven’t lost a match since that She Believes Cup defeat and scored a statement win over France in France in February. There have been some modest bumps in the road–draws against decent, but not overwhelming Spain and Japan squads are not hugely inspiring–but Germany has a well-balanced lineup that can bring home the trophy, particularly if out-of-form goalkeeper Almuth Schult returns to her shot-stopping best.

They’ll be led by the wizard in midfield, Dzsenifer Marozsan, who bounced back spectacularly from last summer’s pulmonary embolism to return to her big-game best, scoring goals against Wolfsburg and Barcelona in Champions League action and PSG in league play. She no longer wears the captain’s armband, but she steers the ship for this Germany team.

Maro is joined by her OL teammate Carolin Simon, a relative newcomer to the squad, with just 16 caps to her name. But she’s contributed to the scoring plenty for an outside back, with 3 goals in that handful of appearances. And she can even score a pretty one, as she showed against Chili in a recent warm-up game:

Germany will be delighted to have France and the U.S. on the other side of the brackets when the knockout rounds start, but their path won’t be a total cakewalk, assuming they coast through a group that doesn’t include any opponents really on their level, with all due respect to an occasionally-inspiring Spanish squad. The Round of 16 match against a third-place finisher shouldn’t be much of a challenge, but a quarterfinal match likely against the winner of Sweden versus Canada or the Netherlands presents a potential stumbling block.

The memory of a quarterfinal exit in the last major tournament must still sting. Germany won’t let that happen again. Plan on seeing Maro dazzle in Lyon when July rolls around.

1. Lucy Bronze, Nikita Parris / England

Group D
World Rank: 3

Matches:
Sunday, June 9, 18h local time (12 p.m. ET / 9 a.m. PT): vs. Scotland
Friday, June 14, 21h local time (3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT): vs. Argentina
Wednesday, June 19, 21h local time (3 p.m. ET / 12 p.m. PT) vs. Japan

What is going on with England? Coming off the She Believes Cup in March, England looked like a major threat to win the World Cup. Coming off their final warm-up match, England look like one of the tournament’s potentially huge disappointments.

Dr. Jeckyll / Mr. Hyde has been the story for the Lionesses of late, as they’ve veered wildly between very good and very lackluster. A 1-0 loss to a poor New Zealand squad was the most baffling of recent slip ups, but losses to Canada and Sweden don’t bode well and a slightly unfortunate draw against a short-staffed Australia team adds to the worry. We get the sense that coach Phil Neville is still pondering his best XI for the opening game, a grudge match against Scotland that should be manageable for England, but that could quickly turn disastrous if England’s offense and defense can’t sort themselves out quickly.

And yet, for all of their infuriating inconsistency, England should still stroll their way to Lyon. England will need professional performances to beat Japan and Scotland, but Argentina won’t give the Lionesses any trouble and first place in the group should be well within reach. From there, the path to the final four becomes relatively leisurely. Their Round of 16 match would be against a third-place finisher in the group stage and thus easily navigable. They would then find themselves in the quarterfinals against a second-place team: likely the winner of either Norway or South Korea versus perhaps Italy or Brazil. Every one of those teams is a good tier below England. England are in for a reality check once they get to Lyon, likely facing the winner of France vs. USA in the semifinals, but if the Lionesses aren’t in Lyon at all, it will be a total catastrophe.

Unsurprisingly, Lucy Bronze will be a key piece in bringing England to Lyon. The world’s best right back has played some minutes in midfield recently as Neville experimented with some different lineups, but he should have gotten that out of his system. Some free advice, Coach: When figuring out where to play a superstar like Bronze, allow “world’s best” to be a guide to your decisionmaking. Bronze’s family has set manageable goals for her, with her brother providing the inspiring message “Don’t be sh*t” (good advice for us all, really).

Bronze will probably plan to clear that bar by a good margin, and you know she’s eager to show her Lionesses teammates around Lyon late in the tournament.

Winger Nikita Parris will be particularly eager to get an early look at the Parc OL ahead of her move to Lyon next season. OL has thus far held back on any announcement, but the internet always knows, and Parris and Manchester City have confirmed the speedy attacker’s move to the Champions League holders.

England aren’t the favorites to win the tournament, but they should be the favorites for a final four appearance.

***

A spectacular month of football is ahead, and Lyon–the city and its stars–are at the center. Who do you predict will hoist the trophy on July 7?

Follow Lyon Offside (@LyonOffside) and Arianna (@AScavs) on Twitter!

Photos via Dominique Mallen (@dommal38)

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