Nigeria versus Australia
Nigeria was coming off a surprising tie against Sweden while Australia was coming off a disappointing 3-1 loss to the USA. Both teams seemed to have upped their game for match two. I was particularly impressed by Nigeria. As they had done against Sweden, they were aggressively attacking the ball and putting a lot of pressure on the other team from the opening whistle. At the same time, they appeared to be playing with more control and a better tactical game. Their style is more fluid than many teams -- passes are almost always to space, not directly to players. When this worked, it was a thing of beauty, reminding me a bit of Brazil; when it didn't work, it led to a lot of turnovers, and this was the ultimate undoing of team Nigeria. In contrast, I didn't see a lot of consistency in Australia's play and was rather surprised at the game's end to see the possession statistics at 51% for Australia and 49% for Nigeria.
It was an end to end game that felt pretty closely matched in my eyes. Australia ended up scoring two goals, both on defensive errors from the Nigerian squad. In contrast, it felt like Nigeria had more and better scoring opportunities, but they could not convert on them, leading to the 2-0 final score. I was disappointed -- I thought Nigeria deserved to win.
The exciting part about this match is that this is such a dramatically different Nigerian team from years past. In past cups, the Nigerian team has been aggressive to the point of dangerous and not nearly so organized and precise. This team was full of finesse, constructive aggression and creative play. I predict Nigeria to be a force to be reckoned with on Tuesday.
USA versus Sweden
We all knew this was going to be a good match, which was a repeat from the last game of group play in 2011. [I watched that game sitting behind a group of drunk Swedish fans, which was no fun at all. This time we were in a pro-USA section at the corner of the field at the top of the stadium.]
Both teams opened with play that was vastly superior to what we saw on Monday. Both teams possessed the ball well, made good passes and had dangerous forays into the box. As a result, it was more like an exciting game of chess than a high-scoring game of football. In fact, both teams were very hungry for goals, and both teams were ultimately starved. This high-quality chess match produced a 0-0 outcome. The USA threw every forward it had at the Swedes, but could not put the ball in the net. The starting forward line was Leroux and Press -- youthful and speedy. Next up it was Leroux and Rodriguez, with Press at wing-half. Next up, Wambach and Rodriguez (strike partners from 2011), with Leroux moving to wing-half. Finally, Alex Morgan and Wambach, with Rodriguez moving to wing-mid. None of those duo's were successful, although all had opportunities.
In the midfield, Holiday seemed a more critical force in the game, but once again, I sensed an absence of Carli Lloyd's presence at midfield. We need her. She had a few brilliant plays and a nasty head collision in the box that could have been a game winner, but she wasn't the active presence we need in the midfield.
I am, however, optimistic, that the USA forwards will be able to penetrate the Nigerian back line, but it won't be an easy game. I hate to make predictions, because I am somewhat superstitious, but I say that USA tops Nigeria, and Sweden tops Australia.
In other news ...
We spent Thursday evening in the hotel bar watching Canada play to a frustrating 0-0 tie with New Zealand. In some ways, this game was reminiscent of the USA/Sweden game, but in others it was vastly different. Neither Canada nor New Zealand were as controlled and successful at possessing the ball as the USA and Sweden were, but at the same time, Canada, in particular, had a number of opportunities that could have made it a Canada win. So, Canada goes into its last game of group play (on Monday in Montreal, where Teagan and I will be in attendance) with 4 points to China's 3, Netherlands 3, and New Zealand's 1.
I dread the last games of group play in group B. This is the group I named the Group of Injustice: Veterans Germany and Norway against newcomers Thailand and Cote D'Ivoire. If you recall Germany thrashed Cote D'Ivoire 10-0, while Norway schooled Thailand 4-0. Then Germany and Norway played to a tie. Thus, Norway and Germany enter the last game each with four points. It is safe to assume that both will win their final games, which will leave them tied for points after three games. Then it comes down to goal differential. This is downright cruel -- what it means is that both Norway and Germany need to run up the score as much as possible against the World Cup newbies. I predict these games will be painful to watch. I do wish there were some way to have avoided such inequality in the play -- while I understand that the two strong teams have to do what they have to do, it's going to be most uncomfortable.
And now, we're off to Montreal for Brazil v Spain, and Costa Rica v Korea.