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FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023: Little to choose among the eight remaining | Football News

What began with Aitana Bonmati bending a game to her will ended with France setting up a tasty quarter-final with hosts Australia who eased Sam Kerr onto the pitch 19 days into the ninth Women’s World Cup. In between, the round of 16 produced Japan’s panache, Lauren James’ petulance, Nigeria’s perseverance, Ana Guzman’s brilliance and a heroic shift by Zecira Musovic that took USA to the tie-breaker before goalline technology killed the defending champions’ aspirations of a three-peat.

Linda Caicedo and Daniela Caracas celebrate at the end of the Women's World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Jamaica and Colombia in Melbourne,(AP)
Linda Caicedo and Daniela Caracas celebrate at the end of the Women’s World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Jamaica and Colombia in Melbourne,(AP)

If the second round was about teams showing that the expanded World Cup was an idea whose time had come – at 72, Morocco were the lowest-ranked team ever in the last 16 – the quarter-finals, beginning on Friday where each player is assured of $90,000 in prize money, have the look and feel of the high table of the women’s game. Six of the teams are among the world’s top 10 and Japan, the only former world champions remaining, are 11th. Five of the eight are from Europe showing a shift in the power axis from North America with Olympic champions Canada eliminated in the group league.

Playing their first quarter-finals in a competition no South American team has won, Colombia, at 25th are the only country outside the top 20 in FIFA rankings. It could mean the draw has been kinder to them but given how Nigeria, ranked 40th, had the better chances, England may be inclined to view things differently. Especially in a tournament where rankings haven’t always reflected performance.

That said, England have shown they can adapt and be proactive. Under Sarina Wiegman, the only woman coach remaining from the 12 that started this 32-team competition, England blew away China with a back three and adjusted to a back-four to ensure Nigeria could not exploit space behind wing-backs after James’ sending-off. Yes, Linda Caicedo has had a couple of quiet games and her 2022 under-17 World Cup teammate Guzman showed Colombia’s attacking efficiency with a crossfield assist but the European champions, unbeaten in 36 of their last 37 games, will be favourites in the last of the quarter-finals.

You couldn’t say that for the other games. Though they will miss midfielder Danielle van de Donk, who is suspended, and were tested by South Africa before Kaylin Swart’s error fetched the insurance goal, Netherlands are the runners-up from the last edition. They held USA 1-1 in the group league, have made the knockout rounds for the third successive edition and notched up the biggest win of the tournament (7-0 against Vietnam). So, they won’t be overawed by Spain who are in the quarter-finals for the first time.

Spain sizzled against Switzerland showing no after-effects of the hiding they received from Japan. Like all Spain teams, men or women, coach Jorge Vilda’s side loves the ball – they had 70% possession against Switzerland – and can play a dizzying array of passes. With two goals and two assists, Bonmati led the show; her second goal scored after shifting the ball from her right foot to left and taking out three Swiss players in the process being the evening’s highlight.

That was the round of 16’s best move till Caitlin Foord found Mary Fowler. Fowler produced a pass that went through lines of Dane players and Foord scootered to meet it before finishing the move with two touches. Kerr’s left calf has healed, Foord is among goals – “I think she even has more to give moving forward in this tournament,” said Australia defender Alanna Kennedy –Hayley Raso tends to pop up at the right place at the right time and Australia have beaten France going into the World Cup.

But that has also been France’s only loss in 18 games in 2023. They tamed Brazil and cruised past Morocco though three goals from Panama are proof that the defence can be vulnerable. Also, playing against the home team riding on a massive wave of support can do things to the best of players.

France coach Herve Renard is hoping the reverse will happen. “We’re hoping to put Australia through exactly what France went through when they were the host country in 2019,” he said. Then, France lost 1-2 to USA.

Musovic first among equals

In a tournament that will be remembered for excellent goalkeeping from Vietnam’s Tran Thi Kim Thanh, Olivia McDaniel of the Philippines, Nigeria skipper Chiamaka Nnadozie, USA’s Alyssa Naeher, England’s Mary Earp and Netherlands’ Daphne van Domselaa, Musovic stood out for her brilliance in the previous round. With USA finally looking like they were getting into the groove, Musovic made 11 saves to push the four-time winners to the penalties where the teams were separated by goalline technology which meant that Lina Hurtig’s shot in sudden death would be the decisive kick.

“I think that she did incredible tonight, she made some saves that not many goalkeepers in the world can make,” said USA coach Vlatko Andonovski. “I think that she’s probably one of the main reasons, if not the only reason (we lost).”

At 5 foot 11, Musovic, 27, is the tallest goalkeeper remaining after Ann-Katrin Berger of Germany exited in the group stage. The economics major isn’t Chelsea’s first choice, Berger is, but that could change given the string of saves, the best being getting a hand to a Lindsay Horan shot that was travelling at 92kmph.

Sweden were third in the last World Cup and second in the last Olympics but against Japan, for whom Hinata Miyazawa has scored five goals and who have looked comfortable with or without the ball, they will count on Musovic’s form to extend their stay.

The big numbers

6: Teams from the world’s top 10 in FIFA rankings are in the round of 8.

1: Japan are the only former world champions in the fray. They won in 2011.

25th: Colombia are the lowest-ranked team remaining

19: Goals from open play from 8 round-of-16 games. That’s 2.35 goals per game. It was 1.15 per game after 48 group-stage games.

5: Goals from Japan’s Hinata Miyazawa. She scored 4 in 20 internationals before the World Cup.

1.53m: Attendance going into the quarter-finals. This is the most-watched World Cup beating the record of 1.35m in 2015.

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