Many would think Group C is an easy group to call with it containing reigning World Champions Japan, but the recent emergence of a promising nation in Switzerland certainly poses big questions.
They have a whole host of players plying their trade in Europe's biggest teams and have the star quality it takes to take on a country like Japan in the race for a top spot finish which would help them avoid a young, attacking side in the Netherlands. Cameroon and Ecuador are the two teams likely to be battling it out for a best third-placed finish, but both will be eager to try and spring a surprise on the two favourites if they are underestimated. Let's take a look at the teams.
Goalkeepers: Annette Ngo Ndom (Union Nove Zamky), Thecle Mbororo (Panthere de Garoua), Flore Enyegue (AS Police).
Defenders: Christine Manie (CFF Olimpia Cluj), Yvonne Leuko (Arras FCF), Augustine Ejangue (Energy Voronezh), Aurelle Awona (ASJ Soyaux), Claudine Meffometou (Zvezda 2005 Perm), Cathy Bou Ndjouh (FC Minsk), Ysis Sonkeng (Louves Minproff), Wanki Awachwi (Locomotive Yaounde).
Midfielders: Raissa Feudjio (Louves Minproff), Ninon Abena (Louves Minproff), Henriette Akaba (Louves Minproff), Agathe Ngani (Louves Minproff), Genevieve Ngo (Caiman Douala).
Forwards: Ajara Nchout (Western New York Flash), Francine Zouga (FF Chenois), Gabrielle Onguene (Louves Minproff), Madeleine Ngono (Claix Football), Jeannette Yango (FF Auvergne), Gaelle Enganamouit (Eskilstuna United), Rose Bella (AS Police).
Another of this summer's debutants is Cameroon, a team who peaked at their highest FIFA ranking in late 2013 and are currently sat in 53rd, a position still loftier than those occupied from 2003 to 2012. They are certainly hitting their peak as a nation and so qualification for their first World Cup could not have come at a better time. They are a traditional team, lining up in a 4-4-2 and building from the back, with a strong defence more important to them than a fierce front line. They have a lot of experience as a whole for a debutant too having played in plenty of continental tournaments as well as the 2012 Olympics.
Reverting back to the point about their strong defence, one of Cameroon's stand out players is undoubtedly their goalkeeper, Annette Ngo Ndom. Voted goalkeeper of the tournament in the 2014 African Women's Championship, the 30-year-old has been a key part of Slovakian side Union Nové Zámky since joining in 2013, helping them do the league and cup double for the last two years with her safe hands. In front of her, she has a strong back four with plenty of depth. Cameroon have a number of experienced defenders who can each boast respectable numbers of caps at relatively young ages. Only two of the defenders selected for the summer are yet to reach double figures, and four of them competed in London in 2012, which shows just how they are certainly accustomed to the world stage. Their formation is a strong one for the defence too as the full-backs have clear support on the wings and it is evident that, with four goals conceded in five qualifying games, they will be tough to beat this summer.
Whilst all but two of their defenders play their domestic football abroad, each and every one of their midfielders are based in Cameroon. This adds that unknown factor to their team which could be crucial in overcoming opponents this summer. They are all used to high energy and physical football in their home country, and to working hard for their nation in what is essentially a two-player midfield with the use of wide midfielders. Their stand-out player in the middle of the pitch is undoubtedly 19-year-old Raissa Feudjio, who already has a whopping 40 caps to her name. She's lively going forward, though more of a creator than a goal-scorer which is where the strikers come into play. Feudjio is in fact the only included midfielder with an international goal to her name, but with just the one it is going to be up to the forwards to find the back of the net.
Madeleine Ngono is their main striker, having scored 38 times in 72 games for her country. Her impressive record is the only positive about Cameroon's attack in truth though, with the other six forwards tallying just 23 between them despite all but one being in double figures for appearances. Gabrielle Onguene is the best bet to take some of the goal-scoring burden off of her teammate having managed 13 goals in 49 games, though Gaelle Enganamouit will be hoping to rectify her poor record in front of goal so far for Cameroon by getting on the scoresheet in Canada following a great start to 2015 in Sweden, where she has managed three goals in seven games for Eskilstuna United.
Generally though, things do not look promising for the Cameroonians on the attack and this is why their defence will be even more important in Group C. Japan and Switzerland love to score goals, but they are not as strong defensively and the African nation need to exploit this as much as possible in order to get anywhere this summer. Realistically though, they will be hoping to get their first World Cup win when they face Ecuador and to put on good performances against the expected top two, even if the results are not great. Another young and improving squad, they will be hoping this is the first of many appearances in the summer's competition, and experience in Canada will go a long way in ensuring this.
Prediction: Out at the group stages.
Goalkeepers: Shirley Berruz (Rocafuerte FC), Irene Tobar (Rocafuerte FC), Andrea Vera (Universidad de Quito).
Defenders: Ligia Moreira (Rocafuerte FC), Nancy Aguilar (Atletico de Febrero), Ingird Rodriguez (Union Espanola), Kerly Real (Deportivo Quito), Merly Zambrano (Espuce), Angie Ponce (Talleres Emanuel), Katherine Ortiz (Rocafuerte FC).
Midfielders: Mayra Olivera (Atletico de Febrero), Valeria Palacios (Rocafuerte FC), Alexandra Salvador (Universidad de Quito), Erika Vasquez (Union Espanola), Madeleine Riera (Union Espanola), Adriana Barre (Galapagos SC), Mabel Velarde (Deportivo Quito).
Forwards: Andrea Pesantes (Rocafuerte FC), Monica Quinteros (Rocafuerte FC), Carina Caicedo (Deportivo Quito), Ambar Torres (Talleres Emanuel), Giannina Lattanzio (Rocafuerte FC), Mariela Jacome (St John's University).
One of the more unknown sides at this summer's competition are Ecuador, and given that they will be making their debut at a World Cup in Canada, this comes with little shock. They are certainly going to be a surprise outfit; their coach, Vanessa Arauz, is just 26-years-old, seventeen of their players are based in Ecuador, three are based in Chile, one in Paraguay and one goes to University in the United States, meaning there is very little chance of the players being well-known to fans or opponents.
Ecuador qualified by beating Trinidad & Tobago 1-0 over two legs in the CONCACAF–CONMEBOL play-off at the back end of last year, defending admirably to keep their opponents' lively attack at bay. Despite a lack of awareness and proper communication between the members of the back line seeing them exposed at times, the team got back in good numbers to thwart their opposition constantly to make up for earlier errors. They played quite a high line in this game which is perhaps why Trinidad & Tobago got in behind them so much, so a deeper line is certainly something Arauz should look at playing against teams like Switzerland and Japan who will punish them for their naivety by finishing their chances clinically.
The lack of professionalism of women's football in Ecuador also means the team is at a disadvantage when it comes to fitness and skill levels. They are not as developed as some of the other nations due to the low standard they play at domestically, but they do have a great work ethic and will literally run themselves into the ground, driven by determination and the desire to do their team proud. The side are a unit in every sense of the word, with great chemistry between them in a group consisting of a mixture of youth and experience. They work hard for each other and this will go a long way as they scrap to get points on the board in a tough looking Group C.
Though Ecuador's team as a whole may be slightly under developed in comparison to other nations, they still have a selection of talented players who will trouble opponents regardless of their nation's status. Italian born forward Giannina Lattanzio has experienced Serie A football and clearly learned a lot from her season as a seventeen-year-old, standing out as one of the team's best players with her sharp passing and great deliveries from the wing. Carina Caicedo is another frightening attacker the nation can boast, a woman who excelled as a sprinter before opting to take on football instead, and her pace is sure to be a key asset for Ecuador going forward, especially with them likely to be playing on the counter for most of the tournament. Midfielder Ingrid Rodriguez has also attracted a lot of buzz with her aggressive style of play, whilst St. John's University's Mariela Jacome will be driven by her desire to do her late Ecuadorian father proud following his passing in the last year.
Clearly, attacking will be the team's strength, but they need to ensure they keep things tight and organised at the back as well. They are a clinical team who take their chances, so keeping clean sheets will be extremely important for them to taste any sort of success this summer. The tournament is also a big opportunity for some of these players to attract the attention of teams around the world and try and push through a move into a bigger league to improve themselves personally. It is going to be huge for Ecuador as a country as well, with women's football not so popular and hoping for a boost with the help of the World Cup. Belief and confidence will drive the team this summer and can help them battle for a best third-placed spot, but I think they will fall short and crash out in the group stages. Hopefully, some of their stars will impress though to raise the profile of the game in the country by earning moves to Europe, as there are certainly some good footballers in the team. I do think that they will turn a few heads with their spirited performances, even if it does not lead to many points on the board.
Prediction: Out at the group stages.
Goalkeepers: Miho Fukumoto (Okayama Yunogo Belle), Ayumi Kaihori (INAC Kobe), Erina Yamane (JEF United Ichihara Chiba Ladies).
Defenders: Yukari Kinga (INAC Kobe), Megumi Kamionobe (Albirex Niigata Ladies), Azusa Iwashimizu (Nippon TV Beleza), Aya Sameshima (INAC Kobe), Saori Ariyoshi (Nippon TV Beleza), Kana Kitahara (Albirez Niigata Ladies), Yuri Kawamura (Vegalta Sendai Ladies), Saki Kumagai (Lyon).
Midfielders: Homare Sawa (INAC Kobe), Kozue Ando (FFC Frankfurt), Aya Miyama (Okayama Yunogo Belle), Nahomi Kawasumi (INAC Kobe), Mizuho Sakaguchi (Nippon TV Beleza), Asuna Tanka (INAC Kobe), Rumi Utsugi (Montpellier), Asano Nagasato (Turbine Potsdam).
Forwards: Shinobu Ohno (INAC Kobe), Yuki Ogimi (Wolfsburg), Yuika Sugasawa (JEF United Ichihara Chiba Ladies), Mana Iwabuchi (Bayern Munich).
Japan will travel to Canada this summer with seventeen of the same players who won the competition four years ago, one of those players being Homare Sawa, who will make a record sixth World Cup appearance, one more than any man or woman in football history. Their chemistry, good understanding and experience as a unit makes them one of the hardest teams to play against, and their experience of winning the competition will help a lot too in a summer which welcomes eight debutant nations.
Additionally, the majority of Japan's squad compete at the highest level, or at least have done recently before making the journey back to their native land for a while. The hottest exports of the country have been showcased all over the world, from England to America, from Germany to France, with few disappointing. The technical ability of the team in general is ridiculously advanced, with their sublime skill and great footballing intelligence seeing them overcome opponents with ease and out-think defenders when one-on-one, making a run off the ball or playing a key pass. These are all attributes that helped both Nahomi Kawasumi and Aya Miyama in particular shine in 2014, seeing them shortlisted for FIFA Women's World Player of the Year.
Going forward, there is no doubt that Japan are one of the most exciting and talented sides on show in Canada. The likes of Shinobu Ohno, Yuki Ogimi, Mana Iwabuchi, Asano Nagasato, Kawasumi and Miyama will be feared by the biggest of nations and the energy they bring to the game will be a nuisance for defenders, as well as tiring. Yukari Kinga and Saki Kumagai also love to get up the field from defence and will offer a lot of support as midfielders like Homare Sawa and Kozue Ando drop and cover the gaps left at the back. This tactical awareness is another benefit of the team's good chemistry and will prevent them from being exploited on the counter this summer.
However, one concern is Japan's defence. Generally, they are quite good; positionally disciplined, they communicate well and have the energy to keep up with even the speediest of forwards. Nonetheless, when up against big, physical sides, they can sometimes be bullied out of the game and struggle to match them in the defensive aspect of things. Going forward against physical teams, this is not as much of a problem as their speed can counter this, as can their clever on the ball movement, but obviously the same cannot be done defensively. This means Japan could have to resort to an out-scoring method against these sides, like that which helped them comeback twice against the USA to win the tournament four years ago.
On top of this, expectations are much higher for Japan now. In 2011, they were not expected to win the competition. They were considered a good team, but a dark horse at the most in a tournament filled with much bigger teams. Beating Germany, Sweden and the USA to be victorious in Germany was against all odds and is a wonderful story to be told, especially when combined with the disaster occurring at home. This time, the Japanese are defending champions and this comes with very high expectations. They are the team to beat and will be the favourites in most games in Canada, which adds a lot of pressure to the team, even more so when you consider they thrived off their underdog status four years ago. This could be another telling factor in how well they do this year and the success they achieve.
Overall, Japan's talented, experienced squad is matched by very few in the world. The majority have a World Cup winners medal to boast and, thus, the experience of going all the way on the world stage, which is priceless. Add this to their experience in the world's best leagues and they are almost experts of the game, the exact players you want to play alongside as a youngster. However, the pressure they will be under this summer is immense. Even if many are backing other nations to win, they are still the reigning champions and that is what they will be constantly referred to as.
2011 was a fairytale, but given the all round superior quality of other nations this summer and Japan's own defensive frailties, I do not think they will retain their title. Finishing top will be difficult against such a promising team like Switzerland, and I even think the latter can pip the champions to first place in the group stages. Japan will progress in second though, overcome the Netherlands in the last sixteen and Sweden in the quarter-finals, but I think Germany will get revenge in the semi-finals for their elimination at the hands of the Japanese in 2011, spelling the end of the summer for Norio Sasaki and his team.
Goalkeepers: Stenia Michel (USV Jena), Gaelle Thalmann (MSV Duisburg), Jennifer Oehrli (BSC YB Frauen).
Defenders: Caroline Abbe (Bayern Munich), Sandra Betschart (Sunnana SK), Rahel Kiwic (DSV Duisburg), Selina Kuster (Zurich), Noelle Maritz (Wolfsburg), Nicole Remund (Zurich), Rachel Rinast (FC Koln), Daniela Schwarz (Valerenga).
Midfielders: Vanessa Bernauer (Wolfsburg), Vanessa Burki (Bayern Munich), Fabienne Humm (Zurich), Florijana Ismaili (BSC YB Frauen), Martina Moser (Hoffenheim), Lia Walti (Turbine Potsdam), Cinzia Zehnder (Zurich).
Forwards: Eseosa Aigbogun (Basel), Ramona Bachmann (Rosengard), Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic (FFC Frankurt), Barla Deplazes (Zurich), Lara Dickenmann (Lyon).
Switzerland are many people's dark horses for the summer and understandably so, as they possess some real world class talent despite this summer being their World Cup debut. Only eight of their players are based in their home country, with 11 plying their trade in Germany's highly-rated Frauen-Bundesliga, two in the similarly viewed Swedish Damallsvenskan, one in Norway and another one turning out for French side Lyon, who just claimed their ninth successive league title. In other words, the players are well accustomed to playing at the highest level, with even the majority of the Swiss based players competing in the Champions League.
With plenty of German based players and a German coach, there are certainly similarities between the country and Switzerland, including their 4-2-3-1 formation which gets the best out of their technically superb players. This set-up squeezes the most out of their attack too, who have scored in all but one of their matches in the last two years, as well as ensuring the back line remains well protected with two deep-lying midfielders. Two of their goalkeepers are German based too, and this is where we will start.
Predicting the number one for Switzerland this summer is difficult. Gaelle Thalmann boasts the most caps for her country, but she started just eight games all season for Duisburg whilst Stenia Michel and Jennifer Oehrli have been key parts of their respective clubs all year and are in good form, especially in comparison to Thalmann. The decision is a tough one for Martina Voss-Tecklenburg but she has three top quality options to consider.
In front of the goalkeeper will be a great back four, regardless of the combination selected. Caroline Abbe is bound to be in most line-ups though, the experienced head of the 100-cap defender far too important to be left out, especially in the big games. Her presence has been vital at Bayern Munich this season too, Abbe playing every minute with her new club this season and eventually finishing the campaign with four goals scored and a league winners medal. She was instrumental in helping Bayern to their first league title since 1975 and Noelle Maritz will be hoping to learn a lot from her this summer, aged just 19 but making strides in the famous green shirt of European giants, and Bayern's rivals, Wolfsburg. With the likes of Sunnana SK's Sandra Betschart and Zurich duo Nicole Remund and Sellina Kuster also included in the squad, the Swiss have plenty of depth at the back and lots of European, top-level experience at their disposal.
Midfield is where they excel though, starting with cap centurion and consistent performer Martina Moser, who plays her football for Hoffenheim in the Frauen-Bundesliga. Following a spell at Wolfsburg that did not give her the playing time she wanted, Moser has settled in nicely at the mid-table side, playing every game this season and scoring four goals. Alongside her in the middle could be any of three players she has faced this year domestically; Vanessa Burki, Vanessa Bernauer and Lia Walti. Burki is another league winner this season, scoring six goals in just nine starts as her and Bayern flew to the top of the pile, whilst Bernauer has been a revelation at runners-up Wolfsburg. With Nadine Kessler out injured for the whole season, Bernauer has stepped up to take her place in midfield and absolutely blown the league away with her talent. In her first season with the club following a move from the relegated Cloppenburg, Bernauer has been one of the stand-out performers with her ability to control a game second to none, and the same can be said for her passing. She knows how to find the back of the net too and heads into the summer in the form of her life.
Walti, on the other hand, is still quite young in comparison to her teammates, aged just 21 but boasting a whopping 42 caps. At eventual fourth place finishers Turbine Potsdam, she is developing rapidly and quickly becoming one of the league's most exciting prospects, with a move to one of Europe's giants far from unrealistic, especially if she has a good summer. These four know how to play at the very top-level and their experience in doing so will help Switzerland overcome the huge task that is Japan in Group C. Fabienne Humm is another name to look out for too, a player making waves in her home country due to her great form with Zurich. She scored eight times in this year's Champions League campaign but is a player opponents could overlook as they worry about the likes of Bernauer and co. instead, and this will really help her do some serious damage in Canada.
Fabienne Humm comes into the World Cup off the back of a great season with Zurich and will be overlooked playing alongside some world-class talent, which will work to her advantage.
Fabienne Humm comes into the World Cup off the back of a great season with Zurich and will be overlooked playing alongside some world-class talent, which will work to her advantage.
With all the buzz around these players recently, one could forget about Lara Dickenmann, one game short of her 100th cap, but you really should not. From midfield, Dickenmann has averaged a goal every other game for Lyon over the course of her seven years in France, as well as mustering up an impressive 40 for her country. She has a wonderful engine, reads the game brilliantly and her experience is vital in the middle of the park. With a winning mentality engraved into her after winning the league every year since joining Lyon, she will be a player teammates turn to when in need of inspiration this summer and her importance on and off the pitch cannot be overstated.
Going forward, the Swiss' talent continues with Ramona Bachmann and Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic, two household names in the game, helping to make up the front line. Both have incredible goals per game ratios for their country and will be looking to continue their good form for Switzerland by getting on the scoresheet plenty of times this summer. Bachmann, with 33 goals in 61 games, plies her trade in Sweden for giants Rosengard and comes into the summer having netted seven times in seven games already this year. She is a real team player, combines well with her teammates and can change games with moments of individual brilliance.
Crnogorcevic, however, is a player known for working hard and one who is not afraid to do the dirty work. She is all about the team, playing whatever position necessary to help out her side. She always puts in a shift, is very versatile and tracks back for her defenders, regardless of where she is playing. On top of this, she can find the back of the net. Crnogorcevic's movement off the ball is fantastic, getting her into dangerous positions to finish clinically - a large factor in why she has managed 35 goals in just 69 games for her country. She is likely to be underestimated by teams this summer, as they have not seen her playing a real attacking role much this season, Crnogorcevic spending a lot of time as a wing-back at Frankfurt, and this will help her have such a fantastic tournament to go towards a great year that has already included a Champions League winners medal.
Overall, the Swiss are bursting at the seams with talent. Like the men's team, they seem to have high quality players based in all of Europe's top leagues consistently performing well and making a name for themselves. As a team, they work as a unit and when you sprinkle the skill and creativity on top of their will to work hard, one can see why they are many people's dark horses this summer. They are unlikely to be out-played in the middle of the park given how much depth they have in there, so the main focus will be just ensuring players help out their full-backs, who are left with little protection in a narrow formation. Sometimes they can ship quite a few goals because of this, but they have the talent to respond and out-score teams when necessary. They are far from the finished article, but their first World Cup will be a successful one and I believe they can pip Japan to top spot with their wonderful team. They will have to be at their best though, and following this a kind round of 16 fixture awaits them against a third-placed team. The potential of a meeting with the USA in the quarter-finals is likely to spell the end of their summer, but it will have been a successful one nonetheless in their debut.