Women's World Cup Group A: meet the hosts, the former cricketer and best youngster
With the 2015 Women's World Cup set to kick off on Saturday, FFT will be bringing you the best preview content on the web ahead of the big kick-off.
Here, we start with Group A featuring hosts Canada, two Englishmen and an excitingly unpredictable duo...
Strengths: The hosts have been focusing all of their attentions on the World Cup since last October, when Consett-born head coach John Herdman called the squad together for the first training camp. A number of players have deliberately been without clubs this season, while those who do have them have been returning to base in between games and generally limiting their availability at club level. Herdman has named 14 members of the squad that won bronze at London 2012, including Christine Sinclair, who was top scorer at the tournament with six goals. That Olympic experience combined with the 1,786 caps shared between the squad should ensure they don't freeze on the big stage.
Weaknesses: In five appearances at the World Cup, Canada have only once found their way out of the group. This time they will face the unknown quantity of a young China team, a fast-improving Netherlands and an experienced New Zealand side, all of whom could prove difficult opposition. Apart from 153-goal Sinclair, firepower appears to be a problem. The captain will need support from Melissa Tancredi, who in 2007 scored the second-fastest goal in Women’s World Cup history, bagging against Australia after just 37 seconds.
Expectations: Hosting will naturally raise the level of expectation and a semi-final spot would be deemed a success; anything less than the quarter-finals seen as failure.
Did you know? Only one Women’s World Cup final host has won the tournament: USA beat China on penalties in 1999.
Verdict: A positive start against China on the opening day will help Canada ride the wave of expectation. If the experienced players like Sinclair and Diana Matheson can help the new crop of talented youngsters, there might be an Englishman in the last four of a World Cup.
Strengths: Youthful exuberance will be the USP for China at the 2015 World Cup. Runners-up in 1999 and having progressed from the group stage at the first five finals, they failed to qualify in 2011 which forced the need for a new generation. Head coach Hao Wei (only 38 years old himself) has selected a squad with no player older than 26.
Weaknesses: Er, winning matches – it's something they haven't managed since December 2014. Their cause isn't helped by centre-forward Yang Li, who was joint-top scorer at the 2014 Asian Women’s Cup with six goals, being ruled out through injury. A potential downside to the squad being so young is its lack of experience. Only midfielder Gu Yasha and Lou Jiahui have featured in a global tournament, making six appearances between them at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Expectations: Very low. China’s best days are behind them and in a tough group, a round-of-16 place may be as far as they can go. If national teams can have transitional periods, China are in one.
Did you know? China hosted the first-ever Women’s World Cup in 1991. They lost 1-0 to Sweden in the quarter-finals.
Verdict: A group-stage exit is likely. Canada and New Zealand should be too strong, while the Netherlands are a growing force in Europe. There is the potential for China to be a surprise package but a lack of experience may be their undoing.
Strengths: Physicality and athleticism are key to the Football Ferns’ game, and their comfortable qualifying campaign proved that they'll be expecting a high percentage of possession and ball retention. Former AFC Wimbledon defender Tony Readings is the man in charge after taking over from current Canada head coach Herdman in 2011, having been his assistant at the last two World Cup finals. A previous role as technical analyst for the national team ensures that his side are always organised and hard to break down. Thirty-year-old forward Amber Hearn is a constant threat but the emergence of Hannah Wilkinson, seven years her junior, is a big plus. Wilkinson has scored 22 goals for the senior side.
Weaknesses: New Zealand are yet to win a game at their three World Cup finals. Their Oceania qualifying campaign provides little to no competition, the latest version ending with 16-0, 11-0 and 3-0 wins against Tonga, Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands respectively.
Warm-up matches in 2015 have been disappointing, with only one win in eight matches, and they've failed to score in their last three.
Expectations: The expansion of the tournament to 24 teams provides New Zealand with an opportunity to reach the knockout stage for the first time, and that will be the first goal for Readings’ side. Any further progression from there would be a great achievement.
Did you know? Goalkeeper Rebecca Rolls played at three Cricket World Cup finals, winning the tournament in 2000.
Verdict: Players like Ali Riley, Sarah Gregorius, Amber Hearn and Essex-born Ria Percival would get into most World Cup squads, but the supporting cast are a concern for New Zealand. Defeat in the round of 16 is a likely outcome.
Strengths: The Dutch are well known for their prolific strikers, and it seems the women’s team have unearthed another in 18-year-old Vivianne Miedema. The Bayern Munich youngster (above) was top scorer in all UEFA qualifying with 16 goals, scoring a hat-trick on her second senior appearance. Miedema was also the hottest property as the Netherlands' U19s won Euro 2014, scoring six times The BeNe League, formed in 2012 to bring together the best teams from Dutch and Belgian football, seems to have had the desired effect for the national team (although it will not continue next season). Over half the squad play their domestic football in the division, which has seen a rise in standards.
Weaknesses: A lack of experience on the world stage may work against them in the latter stages. This is their first-ever World Cup finals and they only have two European Championship appearances to show for their efforts.
Expectations: They may be a relative unknown, but the feeling back home is that this tournament and the 2016 Olympics in Rio will be the first time we notice the Dutch as a force in the women’s game. With no previous World Cup finals to improve on, it's more intrigue than expectation for now.
Did you know? They had the longest qualifying campaign of any European side, finishing as runners-up to Norway in the group stage before beating Scotland in the play-off semi-final and Italy in the final.
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Verdict: Dark horses in orange shirts. Every tournament needs a team to emerge from the shadows and Netherlands could well be that team this summer. They certainly have the talent to reach the quarter-finals. Hanging your hat on an 18-year old striker is risky, but with all-time leading goalscorer Manon Melis to learn from, youngster Miedema could be the star of the show.
Continental continues to support the growth of women's football in England. From grassroots sponsorship and community programmes, to the FA WSL, women's FA Cup and England Women's team, Continental is committed to providing a pathway for the next Duggan, Aluko or Carney.