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Can China's women outshine the men once more? World Cup preview - Wild East Football
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Can China’s women outshine the men once more? World Cup preview

China kick off their 2019 Women’s World Cup in just over three weeks time against Germany, with Spain and South Africa their other opponents
in Group B.

So what are their chances?

While not the powerhouse of the women’s game that they were in the nineties, The Steel Roses are still a strong side with the potential to reach the later stages of the competition. However in order to advance to the knock-out stage they will have to either secure a second-place finish in Group B or accumulate enough points to be one of the four best third-placed teams. All three of China’s group matches will present a different set of challenges, so let’s now take a close look at the teams China will face in Group B.

While not the powerhouse of the women’s game that they were in the nineties, The Steel Roses are still a strong side with the potential to reach the later stages of the competition. However in order to advance to the knock-out stage they will have to either secure a second-place finish in Group B or accumulate enough points to be one of the four best third-placed teams. All three of China’s group matches will present a different set of challenges, so let’s now take a close look at the teams China will face in Group B.

Germany

China’s toughest game of the group stage will undoubtedly be their first match, where they will face former champions Germany. Germany have historically been one of the strongest teams in women’s international football and are to date the only team to win back-to-back World Cups. This time round the Germans have another strong team and are many people’s favourites to win the tournament. Germany breezed through qualification winning seven of their eight games. Their one defeat came in their third qualifying match, where they lost 3-2 at home to Iceland. This slip-up was their first ever home defeat in a World Cup qualifier. It did little however to derail their qualification campaign, as they won all of their other matches without conceding any goals.

Germany are currently ranked No. 2 in the world.

One of the bright spots of Germany’s qualifying campaign was the emergence of striker Lea Schuller. A fast and technically gifted player who also presents a strong aerial threat, the twenty-one year old SGS Essen striker scored on her national team debut in the 3-2 defeat to Iceland. In the remaining games Schuller formed an effective pairing with Germany’s talismanic goal scorer Alexendra Popp. Playing alongside Popp, Schuller went onto find the net a further five times to become the team’s top scorer for the qualifying campaign. China and the rest of Group B will definitely have their work cut-out containing the dangerous combination of Popp and Schuller.

Another key player for Germany who will also cause problems for the Chinese defense is midfield playmaker Dzsenifer Marozsán. The three time Champions League winner is currently one of the world’s top women’s players and comes into the World Cup on the back of another successful season with Lyon. Marozsán usually provides the German attack with much of its creative flair and is also one of the team’s most consistent goal scorers.  If China are to get a result against Germany, it will be imperative that they do not to give her too much time on the ball and prevent her from orchestrating a master class from the middle of the park.

Marozsán has captained Germany since 2016.

Despite both teams facing each other on a fairly regular basis over the past ten years, it has been over a decade since China last scored against Germany. Going into this World Cup the Germans are looking as solid defensively as ever. While it’s not entirely clear how Germany will line-up at the back with a host of experienced defenders to choose from, it’s fair to say that it won’t be easy for The Steel Roses to end their ten year goal drought against Germany.

One potential defensive issue for the Germans may be goalkeeper Almuth Schult. Schult established herself as the national team number one following the retirement of Nadine Angerer after the last World Cup. Over the past four years Shult has generally proven herself to be a solid player at international level. She does however struggle at times when the ball is at her feet. This deficiency was badly exposed in a recent friendly against Japan, where she gave away two soft goals with badly misplaced passes. This is something that China could look to exploit. If China’s forwards are able to consistently pressure Schult on back passes, then they could potentially squeeze a mistake out of her.

All things considered though, it’s difficult to see China coming out of this game with anything more than a draw. They are up against an extremely capable German side who have a team of players that are all playing regular club football at a high level. With quality attacking players such as Wang Shuang and Wang Shanshan, China definitely have the personnel to take the game to Germany. But it’s still unlikely that China will be able to put Germany under pressure for sustained periods of time. By contrast Germany will probably be able to dominate large spells of the game. How well China are able to deal with these periods of German dominance will probably decide whether or not they are able to come away with anything from their opening match.  

South Africa

China will face South Africa in their second Group B match. This will be a must win game for China as they go up against the second lowest ranked team in the tournament. Banyana Banyana will be making their first World Cup appearance after qualifying by reaching the final of the 2018 Africa Cup of Nations. South Africa had an extremely strong showing at this tournament, finishing top of their group and then going onto beat Mali 2-0 in the semi-finals. In the final they managed to take Nigeria all the way to penalties before being edged 4-3 in the shootout.

South Africa line up before the Africa Cup of Nations final.

South Africa have struggled since their Africa Cup of Nations run however. Banyana Banyana have been on a torrid run of form which has seen them fail to win any of their last nine matches. This run of results included a dismal showing at the Cyprus Cup during which they endured two heavy defeats to teams that failed to qualify for the World Cup.  The first of these was 4-1 drubbing at the hands of North Korea and this was followed by a 3-0 loss Finland. While South Africa haven’t always fielded their strongest team during their recent run of bad results, experimentation with different players and systems can only go so far in explaining their poor form.

While South Africa have been on a bad run of form as of late and will be one of the weakest teams in the tournament they do still have some very good players. The most notable of these are the trio of Janine Van Wyk, Linda Mothalo and Thembi Kgatlana  who all played for Houston Dash during the 2018 NWSL season. The experience these three gained from playing in one of the top leagues in the women’s game should help South Africa when the World Cup begins. Van Wyk is by far the most experienced player in the South African team with over one hundred and fifty caps for the national team. A hardworking and technically capable defender Van Wyk is also team captain and will need to try and snap South Africa out of the slow starts which have dogged them in recent matches.

Some Chinese fans may already be familiar with Thembi Kgatlana and Linda Mothalo as both have signed with Beijing Phoenix for the upcoming CWSL season. Mothalo is definitely a player China will need to watch out for. The twenty year old attacking midfielder is one of the most promising young African players playing today and has the ability to open up defences with her penetrating passes. China will need to try and limit the extent to which she is able to link up with Kgatlana. Kgatlana has been involved with the South African national team for a number of years but only really came to prominence during the last Africa Cup of Nations. She had an extremely good tournament and finished as its top scorer with five goals. Still only twenty-three the young striker’s pace may cause problems for China and Kgatlana is likely to be South Africa’s most viable goal scoring threat.

Didier Drogba presented Kgatlana with the 2018 African Women’s Player of the Year award.

Whilst South Africa do posses some very capable players, the quality of the side as a whole is still somewhat lacking and this is clearly reflected in the team’s recent poor results. South Africa are the type of team China will need to be able to comfortably dispatch if they are to make an impact on the tournament. Goal difference will also be something for China to consider in this match. Goal difference could end up being the crucial factor that determines China’s position in Group B or their position amongst the third-placed teams. If South Africa start off as slowly as they have in recent games and China are able get an early goal, then the floodgates could open as China look to bump up their goal difference. However if  South Africa are able to hold out for the first half hour or so then Van Wyk and co. may be able to give China a difficult night.

Spain

China will face Spain in their final group game and how both teams approach this match will largely depend on how things have gone in the previous two rounds of matches both in Group B and elsewhere. China may feel somewhat fortunate to be facing Spain, who were the second lowest ranked team in Pot 2 when the draw for Group B was made.  This being said China don’t have the best of records against Spain, having lost both of their previous two encounters.

Will it be third time lucky for China against Spain?

An emerging force in women’s international football over past eight years, Spain made their first World Cup appearance in the 2015. The Spaniards had a disappointing tournament however, going out in the first round after two defeats and a draw. This poor performance led to significant fallout which has shaped the direction of national team over the past four years. Ignacio Quereda took a lot of criticism for Spain’s poor performance and the players who had been involved in the World Cup put out a collective statement calling for an end to his reign as head coach. They got their wish as Quereda soon resigned and he was subsequently replaced by Jorge Vilda.

Prior to being head coach of the senior women’s team, Vilda had enjoyed considerable success with the women’s Under 17s and Under 19s. Once in charge of the senior team, he sought to revitalise it by bringing through younger players and phasing out a lot of the older more established players. Vilda has now been in charge of Spain for nearly four years and has the team play a fairly typical Spanish style of football centred around possession and patient build-up play.

So far the Vilda era has been something of a mixed bag in terms of success. Whilst Spain did reach the knock-out stages of the previous European Championships, their performance was generally considered a disappointment.  Spain lost three of their four games and scored just once, leaving many frustrated by the team’s lack of progress. Spain’s recent strong showing in their World Cup qualifying campaign may give China and the rest of Group B more cause for concern however. La Roja cruised though their qualifying group winning all eight games and only conceding twice. As well as being defensively solid, Spain were also very effective going forward and finished as one of the top scoring sides in the UEFA qualifying section.

The spearhead of Spain’s attack during qualifiers was Jennifer Hermoso. The veteran forward netted seven times and provided seven assists. Hermoso was also in excellent form this year with club side Athletico Madrid. She finished the season as top scorer in the Primera Division with twenty-four goals, as Athletico clinched their third consecutive title. Another key attacking player for Spain is Marta Corredera. Usually employed by the national team either on the right-wing or as a wing-back Corredera is a fast and skillful player, capable of getting down the right channel quickly and creating chances for others. She has been one of the most consistent performers for Spain over past eight years and could cause plenty of problems for China in their Group B encounter.

Hermoso has been in excellent form over the past year.

If China are to get out of Group B it is more than likely that the match against Spain will be the crunch game that decides whether or not they progress to the next stage of the tournament. It will definitely be a game they are capable of winning. Whilst Spain are a very technically capable side with some very good players, they are not a team filled with world-class talent and they certainly do not have a proven track record of performing at major tournaments. Their recent defeat to England also exposed significant defensive frailties with the Spanish defense being frequently carved up by England’s quick passing and movement. If China can exploit these defensive deficiencies in the same way and contain some of Spain’s attacking talent we could see The Steel Roses taking all three points and booking their place in the Round of 16.

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