Tournament favourites Germany are the big name in Group B this summer, with dark horses Norway there to trouble them alongside the Ivory Coast and Thailand, both of whom have probably been written off already.
Whilst more or less everyone will expect the Germans to win the group, they are troubled by a number of injuries this summer and, although this did not matter when they faced Brazil recently and defeated them 4-0, Norway will look to take advantage to top the group. The Ivory Coast and Thailand could spring a surprise if their opponents go into games over-confident, but it is likely that both will be scrapping for points to progress as one of the best third placed sides.
Goalkeepers: Nadine Angerer (Portland Thorns), Almuth Schult (Wolfsburg), Laura Benkarth (Freiburg).
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Defenders: Bianca Schmidt (Frankfurt), Saskia Bartusiak (Frankfurt), Leonie Maier (Bayern Munich), Annike Krahn (PSG), Babett Peter (Wolfsburg), Jennifer Cramer (Turbine Potsdam), Josephine Henning (PSG), Tabea Kemme (Turbine Potsdam).
Midfielders: Melanie Behringer (Bayern Munich), Simeone Laudehr (Frankfurt), Lena Lotzen (Bayern Munich), Dzsenifer Marozsan (Frankfurt), Melainie Leupolz (Bayern Munich), Lena Goessling (Wolfsburg), Sara Dabritz (Freiburg).
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Forwards: Pauline Bremer (Turbine Potsdam), Anja Mittag (Rosengard), Celia Sasic (Frankfurt), Alexandra Popp (Wolfsburg), Lena Petermann (Freiburg).
It's been a great few weeks for women's football in Germany. The final day of their domestic season showed how strong the game is out there, with both the title and the Champions League spots undecided until that last day, whilst Frankfurt progressed to the final of the latter competition and came out winners, ensuring they will play in it again despite finishing third in the league. Their national team is thriving off the success of clubs in the country too, with plenty of players in fine form making the absences of Nadine Kessler and co. almost forgettable due to the quality those missing personnel have been replaced with. It's scary to imagine just what this team could do if they were not plagued with so many injuries.
Still, I really do think the Germans can lift the trophy in July. There's not much I can write in this preview that people don't already know. Germany are the top ranked team in the world, the favourites for the competition and arguably the most in form side coming into the summer. Since beating England at their historic Wembley debut in November, Germany have lost just once (4-2 to Sweden in the Algarve Cup in March). Last month was their most incredible result though as they brushed aside Marta's Brazil, winning 4-0 despite being hindered by a whopping 13 injuries. This really emphasised the strength of their squad, not just their team, and how much depth they have coming into a World Cup even though they are missing quite a few key players.
Fatmire Alushi is missing due to the announcement that she is pregnant, whilst Kessler remains on the sidelines alongside Luisa Wensing. These are three huge players for the Germans and in any other team, this would largely reduce their chances of success in the competition. However, the development of players in their country is so strong that fans need not worry as there are plenty of more-than-competent replacements at Silvia Neid's disposal. In fact, the omissions of Anna Blasse, Verena Faisst, Kathrin Hendrich and Gina Lewandowski, just to name a few, stress just how strong this team is perfectly.
One possible weakness is Nadine Angerer in goal though. Recently, she has not been in her usual top form, with some risky decisions in between the sticks putting her team in danger frequently. Some suicidal dribbling in her area and a few dodgy errors in terms of making saves, the 2013 FIFA Women's World Player of the Year has been far-from-reliable so far in 2015 and if that continues in Canada then her team could pay a costly price. In the group stages, mistakes are unlikely to be punished as ruthlessly, but perhaps if Angerer still does not convince prior to the knockout round, Neid will have to consider a change in goal for the sake of the team, regardless of the controversy it will bring in the veteran keeper's final World Cup before her retirement at the end of the summer.
Defensively though, bar this potential goalkeeping weakness, Germany are as solid as they come. The aforementioned omission of Lewandowski shows just how good they are at the back, with the Bayern Munich defender being the best in her position in the Frauen-Bundesliga this season but still missing out on the squad. They allow their opponents very few chances and limit them to shots from distance which Angerer is more than comfortable with. Their full-backs like to bomb forward at every opportunity, but they also possess the stamina to get back effectively as well as having teammates in midfield whose great awareness sees them cover for their defenders. They can occasionally be caught out on the counter with their limited pace at the back, but they are usually well-positioned to cover up this weakness and ensure it is not exploited so it is rarely a problem unless the game becomes extremely stretched.
In midfield and up front, they exude class. Simeone Laudehr is in wonderful form, albeit perhaps not at her peak fitness after picking up an injury in the Champions League final but being declared healthy enough for the summer, Dzsenifer Marozsan is arguably the best player in the world right now, whilst Lena Goessling has been fantastic all year for Wolfsburg. Throw in the emerging young talent of Lena Lotzen, Melanie Leupolz and Sara Dabritz and the Germans have a midfield that could be called the best at the tournament, though France could probably challenge them for that title. Going forward, all eyes will be on the goal machine that is Celia Sasic as, with her having just terminated her contract with Frankfurt, her signature is up for grabs and after scoring 22 goals in 20 league games, as well as 14 in eight Champions League games, she will be hotly pursued.
On top of this, Anja Mittag has just earned herself a move to French giants PSG after scoring 62 goals in 69 games over the course three and a half seasons with Swedish club Rosengard, whilst Alex Popp has been on fire for Wolfsburg once again with 14 goals in 20 games. Pauline Bremer and Lena Petermann have both shown promise with Turbine Potsdam and Freiburg respectively this season, but have not reached the same tallies as their teammates and are likely to be used more in the lesser group games to rest the likes of Sasic and co., as opposed to being first choice, especially at their young ages of 19 and 21. Still, Bremer's move to Lyon just before the tournament shows just how much potential she has, the club dubbing her good enough for their squad just weeks after they claimed their ninth successive French league title. Germany must ensure they do not rely on their main front three though and guarantee goals come from elsewhere in the team too, as other than their main starters they do not have a reliable source of goals to turn to. The pressure needs to be taken off their goal-scorers to make sure they perform freely and confidently and the midfielders are the main players who can do this, namely Marozsan and Laudehr who have great scoring records for both club and country.
Overall, Germany are the best team entering the summer and should win the competition. They are more than good enough to comfortably top their group, setting up a meeting with a third-placed team and then a tricky quarter-final with another favourite in France. However, to be the best they must beat the best, as the saying goes, and defeating them and then Japan will be necessary to reach the final where the USA or England will await them. Again, Neid's team are good enough to beat either of these as, even if they are exploited at the back at times, their firepower going forward is unmatchable and will lead them to World Cup glory with minimal fuss.
Goalkeepers: Lydie Saki (Juventus de Yopougon), Dominique Thiamale (Omness de Dabou), Cynthia Djohore (Onze Soeurs de Gagnoa).
Defenders: Fatou Coulibaly (Juventus de Yopougon), Djelika Coulibaly (Juventus de Yopougon), Nina Kpaho (Juventus de Yopougon), Mariam Diakite (ES Abobo), Fernande Tchetche (Omness de Dabou), Sophie Aguie (Omness de Dabou), Raymonde Kacou (Juventus de Yopougon).
Midfielders: Rita Akaffou (Juventus de Yopougon), Ida Guehai (Kristianstads DFF), Christine Lohoues (Onze Soeurs de Gagnoa), Binta Diakite (ASF Medenine), Jessica Aby (Onze Soeurs de Gagnoa), Aminata Haidara (Onze Soeurs de Gagnoa).
Forwards: Nadege Essoh (Juventus de Yopougon), Ines Nrehy (WFC Rossiyanka), Sandrine Niamien (ES Abobo), Ange N'Guessan (Omness de Dabou), Rebecca Elloh (Onze Soeurs de Gagnoa), Josee Nahi (Zvezda 2005 Perm), Nadege Cisse (ES Abobo).
The Ivory Coast defied all odds to reach this summer's competition, defeating South Africa in the African Women's Championship to reach the finals for the first time in their history, reaching their all-time highest ranking of 65 in the process. They are one of the most exciting prospects emerging out of Africa right now, their progress and promise perhaps overshadowed by how Nigeria have simply exploded onto the world stage in the last year. Their collectivist approach to games, fantastic spirit and emphasis on football being a team game sets them apart from other nations, and this is all without even touching upon their physical abilities yet. These factors were a key reason why they overcame South Africa, and the belief and momentum they bring to Canada could really help them secure a surprise place in the knockout round.
This point is stressed even more by the fact that their goals were spread out across the team in the 2014 African Women's Championship, with nine players hitting the back of the net in total in the tournament. Their defending also shows their great work ethic as a team, with players always tracking back to help out their teammates and this was a big factor in their qualification as, after conceding four against Nigeria in the first game, they conceded only four in the next four games, including that clean sheet against South Africa in the final play-off. Their goalkeeper is another big reason for this too, Dominique Thiamale. Though there is some debate over who will be the number one 'keeper in Canada with all three having the same amount of caps (27), Thiamale was first choice and captain in last year's tournament with her experience and commanding presence in between sticks going a long way, alongside her superb shot-stopping and good judgement of the flight of the ball.
In a more progressive 4-3-3 formation than some, the Ivory Coast are dangerous going forward too. Their defenders possess plenty of the athletic attributes to effectively keep opponents out, pace and strength allowing them to cope with even the best of attackers, but the team's flair and skill is present more prominently in midfield and attack, especially with their four abroad players all positioned here. Ida Guehai is one of these four, a 20-year-old midfielder based in Sweden's Damallsvenskan with Kristianstad. Despite only joining the club this year and playing just three games for them, all in May, Guehai has adapted quickly to life in one of the world's best leagues, scoring three goals so far, including the winner against Malbacken. She is clinical and has an eye for goal, both of which are evident in her statistics, but she is also creative and always heavily involved in her team's build-up play on the attack. These attributes will make Guehai one to watch in Group B and she is sure to be the player that makes her side tick, turning defence to attack and creating chances for teammates.
The players most likely to be on the end of any chances will be the Ivory Coast's two most prolific strikers, Ines Nrehy and Josee Nahi, both based in Russia. The latter boasts a formidable international record of 12 goals in 18 appearances and really caught the eye of fans in Europe when she scored four goals in one game for Zvezda 2005 Perm in the Champions League at the back end of last year, her side winning 5-2 in the first leg of their round of 32 tie with Stjarnan thanks to her significant input. She's scored just one goal in three starts this year for her club, but her work rate cannot be faulted and her contributions in other areas of the game having been equally important, regardless.
As for Nrehy, she also possesses a great record for her country having netted 13 times in 17 games for the Ivory Coast, and is in good form coming into the competition having scored three times in five games for her side Rossiyanka this year. Given her current scoring run, Nrehy may be the player chosen to lead the line through the middle this summer, at least to begin with, whilst Nahi is perhaps pushed out wide in the front three. Either way, having both on the pitch is a must given how clinical they are in front of goal and how much the Ivory Coast need to take their chances in such a tough group.
As aforementioned, goals have been spread across the team recently and this needs to continue to ensure Nahi and Nrehy do not feel the pressure this summer. Mariam Diakite is another player with a promising record of nine goals in 12 appearances, and this is even more impressive when you take into account that she is a defender. She will be looking to capitalise on any set piece opportunities, whilst their young talent throughout the team are unlikely to feel pressure whatsoever and their fearless attitude will be key in leading to composure in front of goal. With five teenagers and 12 players under the age of 24 included in the squad, the Ivory Coast are another team building for the future who will have one eye on 2019.
However, like many others, this World Cup comes too soon for their young squad and will act as more of a learning experience than a chance to win some silverware. The possibility of them snatching one of the best third placed finishes is unlikely in a group containing Germany and Norway, but they will give it their best shot as they look to snatch points off of the big two and all three from Thailand. I believe they can get their first ever World Cup victory, but that will be their only achievement with them more than likely to fall at the first hurdle.
Prediction: Out at the group stages.
Goalkeepers: Ingird Hjelmseth (Stabaek), Cecilie Fiskerstrand (Stabaek), Silje Vesterbekkmo (Roa).
Defenders: Maria Thorisdottir (Klepp), Marita Skammelsrud Lund (Lillestrom), Maren Mjelde (Avaldsnes), Trine Bjerke Ronning (Stabaek), Nora Holstad Berge (Bayern Munich), Ingrid Moe Wold (Lillestrom), Marit Sandwei (Lillestrom).
Midfielders: Solveig Gulbrandsen (Kolbotn), Gry Tofte Ims (Klepp), Lene Mykjaland (Lillestrom), Ingrid Schjelderup (Stabaek), Kristine Minde (Linkoping), Emilie Haavi (Lillestrom).
Forwards: Melissa Bjanesoy (Stabaek), Lisa-Marie Karlseng Utland (Trondheims-Orn), Isabell Herlovsen (Lillestrom), Elise Thorsnes (Avaldsnes), Anja Sonstevold (Lillestrom), Ada Hegerberg (Lyon), Hege Hansen (Klepp).
Less than a week after announcing their final World Cup squad, Norway were dealt a huge blow as it was revealed that Caroline Hansen, one of their key players, was to be unable to participate in Canada having sustained a serious knee injury. This is on top of the absence of Ingvild Isaksen too, who is also out through injury and another important player for them. However, one still expects them to progress from a relatively straight forward Group B, with the Ivory Coast and Thailand not good enough to trouble them, making them favourites to comfortably advance in second place behind Germany.
Though the majority of their squad is based in the country's own domestic league, the Toppseiren, there are three players plying their trade abroad with some of Europe's most established women's clubs, and these three are all extremely important in terms of top level experience to their national team, regularly playing against the world's best and coming out on top. The first of these is Nora Holstad Berge, and she will be key in ensuring Norway remain strong at the back as she leads the line in defence. The likes of Thailand and the Ivory Coast will probably play more counter-attacking football in the group stages, and Hostad Berge needs to guarantee that her fellow defenders are switched on even when they have had little to do in the match thus far.
Alongside her will be an even more experienced head in Trine Bjerke Ronning, who has 153 caps to her name and a wealth of top level experience having played for Norwegian giants Stabaek for the best part of six years now. Throw in the likes of Maren Mjelde and Marita Skammelsrud Lund and it is clear to see that Norway will be strong defensively, especially in front of veteran goalkeeper Ingrid Hjelmseth. They have a number of defenders who can also play a deep midfield role too, which allows tactical versatility and means they could opt for more protective formations against big teams such as Germany this summer.
In midfield, Solveig Gulbrandsen is the big name in Norway, coming ever closer to her 200th cap at the age of 34 now, but Kristine Minde is the player to watch. Aged 22, Minde plies her trade in neighbouring country Sweden with Linkoping and is a promising young talent. With a battling attitude as well as the ability to change the outcome of a game, she is the one her opponents need to keep quiet if they are to overcome Norway in the middle of the park and hinder them to an extent going forward too. There is a mix of ages in midfield, but there is no lack of experience with each player having a very respectable tally of caps for their age, with the exception of Ingrid Schjelderup's eight, a player only recently involved in the national team set-up. Regardless of the combination in the middle, the players have a good understanding, communicate well and work together as a unit to get up and down the pitch and ensure that their team has support at both ends of the field. Their tactical awareness and discipline is fantastic and they will be tough to overrun this summer, even for the best of opponents.
Going forward, Norway are far from toothless and Even Pellerud's squad selection this summer suggests they are looking to take games to their opponents with eight attacking players selected, on top of Minde, for example, who can also play as a forward if required. With respectable goal tallies at international level all round, the majority of Pellerud's choice strikers are in great domestic form too, most notably Lyon's Ada Hegerberg who just ended her season in France with 26 goals in 22 games, LSK Kvinner's Isabell Herlovsen who has eight goals in five appearances so far this season and Trondheims-Ørn SK's so far uncapped Norwegian Lisa-Marie Karlseng Utland whose six goals in eight games in 2015 have helped earn her her first senior call-up, and in perfect time too. A couple of players may not be banging in the goals for fun at the moment, but given that most of them are well accustomed to the international stage, they are sure to rise to the occasion and be as focused as ever in Canada.
The depth Norway have going forward is terrific and allows for plenty of rotation to keep the legs up top fresh at all times. Their attackers each have different dimensions to bring to the table too, which again means Pellerud can make tactical changes frequently as he has the players available to do so. The versatility his team possess is a brilliant asset and can lead to them being unpredictable and difficult for teams to prepare for this summer, which is always an advantage. As a team, Norway are promising. They have a very young squad and a bright future ahead of them that could see them get back to where they were in the 1990s with the right coach. However, whilst they have the depth going forward and a couple of additional options in midfield, they lack this in defence. Injuries and fatigue could hit them hard if it occurs at the back and the inexperience that steps in may not be able to cope with the demands just yet.
This leads me on nicely to my final point, which is that Norway are far from the finished article. Hegerberg and Minde are two young players who have developed rapidly to reach the top level and establish themselves there, but the rest of their young talent is currently plying its trade in its native land and is yet to experience a proper competitive environment, with the exception of their international adventures thus far. The step up from the Toppseiren to the World Cup is a ridiculously large one and the difference could be telling in the nation's success this summer. Unless they prepare themselves perfectly or adjust quickly to the tournament, which is unlikely, then they will not go as far as their potential may suggest. They will progress to the last sixteen in second place, but the likelihood of a meeting with England should see their summer end rather quickly given the Lionesses' record against teams below them in the rankings and their top level quality in general. France 2019 could be a big tournament for Norway, but Canada 2015 comes too soon in my opinion.
Prediction: Last sixteen.
Goalkeepers: Waraporn Boonsing (BG-Bandit Asia), Sukanya Chor.Charoenying (Ostersunds DFF), Yada Sengyong (North Bangkok College).
Defenders: Darut Changplook (North Bangkok College), Duangnapa Sritala (Bangkok), Warunee Phetwiset (Chonburi Sriprathum), Sunisa Srangthaisong (BG-Bandit Asia), Khwanruedi Saengchan (BG-Bandit Asia).
Midfielders: Pikul Khueanpet (BG-Bandit Asia), Silawan Intamee (Chonburi Sriprathum), Naphat Seesraum (BG-Bandit Asia), Wilaiporn Boothduang (Bangkok), Orathai Srimanee (BG-Bandit Asia), Anootsara Maijarern (Air Force United), Ainon Phancha (Chonburi Sriprathum).
Forwards: Irravadee Makris (unattached), Kanjana Sungngoen (Bangkok), Nisa Romyen (North Bangkok College), Rattikan Thongsombut (BG-Bandit Asia), Taneekarn Dangda (Ostersunds DFF), Thanatta Chawong (Ostersunds DFF), Alisa Rukpinij (Chonburi Sriprathum).
Despite their rather lofty ranking of 29th, Thailand are quite an unknown side at this World Cup considering it's their debut at the competition and that none of their squad play outside of their home country. Despite being a consistently solid side, they have struggled to reach the finals in recent years because of the dominance of teams like Japan in Asia. The expansion of the tournament to allow 24 teams means they have managed to qualify though and so they have finally been afforded the opportunity to test themselves against the world's elite.
It's difficult to judge how preparation for the summer has been going for the team. They've played nine games this calendar year, winning seven and losing two. On paper, that looks fantastic, but if we delve into the games a little deeper then they tell another story. Their first game of the year was a 7-0 defeat to the Netherlands, a team you would expect them to be putting up a bigger fight against given that the Dutch are only ranked 12th in the world. Defeat could be understandable as they are a strong nation, one certainly on the rise, but by that margin it is inexcusable. Despite the organisation of this fixture being a good one to test them for the summer, their friendlies following this have been quite simply pointless. An 11-1 victory over Papua New Guinea and another 7-0 one two days later in March taught them nothing new, and the same can be said for their 5-0 victory over Malaysia later that month.
In May, they competed in the 2015 AFF Women's Championship alongside Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Australia's under 20 squad, who were there instead of their senior side to spur on their own development, with the first team inferring with this action that the tournament is quite simply too easy for them and a waste of time. Funnily enough, the young Matildas in fact defeated Thailand in their opening game, 3-0. Thailand then proceeded to hit double figures past Indonesia and Laos though, before beating Vietnam 2-1 in extra time in the semi-finals and Myanmar 3-2 in the final to win the competition. It was not an easy success though, and it should have been really given the standard of the sides they were playing. The fact that they have not put up a fight against a big nation or tested themselves against many of them is a problem, and the class of Germany and Norway will be a huge shock to them as a result.
Their constant winning could go either way. It could prove to be a great advantage, with them carrying a winning mentality and confidence in abundance which will make them difficult to beat, even for the big teams, due to their huge belief in their ability. However, it could instead prove to be a huge disadvantage, with them being way over-confident in games and, as aforementioned, not used to playing teams of such great ability. I am predicting the latter, and thus doubting their chances of even beating the Ivory Coast, who are much more realistic in their chances but still confident in achieving something this summer.
Let's focus on some positives though. Thailand play a formation that is not so much unorthodox, but unique; 4-5-1. Very few teams actually choose this formation despite it being quite a normal one, which means teams could struggle against them due to the unfamiliarity of their tactics. The formation offers extra support out wide for the full-backs when defending, as well as for the wingers when they get forward, and means they are unlikely to be undone on the flanks easily. Playing through the middle of them is again tough though as Thailand themselves like to play a sharp passing style of play and can read their opponents intentions well because they are familiar with how other teams like to stop them from playing. Tight and energetic marking is something they are used to playing against, and they will utilise this to stifle their opponents as they know it is tough to deal with when trying to knock the ball around.
Thailand are a very technically gifted team too who have great chemistry having risen through the national team's ranks together. Many of the players have played with each other from the youth levels and their understanding of where their teammate will move and where they want the ball is excellent and a joy to watch when it gets going. Defenders will have trouble predicting what will happen next because of this wonderful knowledge each player has of their team. In Nisa Romyen they have a player capable of taking chances too, already boasting 32 goals in 47 caps, and a player who operates brilliantly in that lone striker role. She works well with those around her and has wonderful pace to allow her to latch onto those well-placed through balls before clinically converting. Romyen will need to be extremely clinical in Group B as well, as her side are unlikely to see many chances and will simply have to take the opportunities they get if they want to progress.
The strengths of the team are certainly their ability to work as one, their unfamiliarity to other nations, their technical ability and their winning mentality. However, they are as unfamiliar with top level teams as they are to their playing style and the quality of their opponents will serve as a huge surprise to a team used to walking over others. They do not possess the necessary experience to be successful in 2015, but an appearance at the competition this summer will be vital in helping them become a bigger team in world football. They will crash out in the group stages, but they will learn a lot in the process.
Prediction: Out at the group stages.