The format of the competition is a bit 'all must have prizes' as there are three groups of four, with the top two in each group and best two third-place finishers progressing to the quarter-finals. Thus, while Team GB have a tough group, they should get through, either in 2nd or 3rd. The groups (with * predictions for progression):
Group E: Brazil*, Team GB*, Cameroon*, New Zealand
Group F: Japan*, Sweden*, Canada*, South Africa
Group G: USA*, France*, Columbia, North Korea
It's a pity Germany aren't going, but there's some very good teams in there - ten of the twelve were at the 2011 World Cup although four of them got knocked out at the group stage, and Canada didn't get a point, stuck in the toughest group - I might be going out on a bit of a limb predicting them to go through, but they are a solid team who just had a dreadful time at the WWC. Plus their captain is nails.
Cameroon and South Africa were the exceptions, but both only narrowly lost out on qualification in the 2010 African Women's Cup, which was used as the WWC qualifying tournament, with the two finalists going to Germany; South Africa (hosts) got 6pts from their group losing to Nigeria, the eventual winners, and then Equatorial Guinea in the semi, Cameroon drew with EG in the group and then got slightly pummelled 5-1 by Nigeria in the next round.
Happily there looks to be at least one cracking game in each of the group rounds. My picks would be:
- Day 1, 25 July at 5pm BST: USA v France
- Day 2, 28 July at midday BST: Japan v Sweden
- Day 3, 31 July at 7.45pm BST: Team GB v Brazil
It's not clear how the knock-out stage draw will work given the format, but I am assuming it will be a hat-based situation but with nobody playing someone from their own group.
Things to watch out for:
1) Whether France have dealt with the lack of confidence shown at WWC 2011 - they got the most shots per game off of any team there (20), but tended to shoot too early / far out, perhaps fearing that they didn't have the strength to hold off defenders; they have the skill, if they can go another couple of yards before pulling the trigger, they could be a threat. With a bit of luck, they'll have worked on their defence too...
2) Whether teams have worked out how to play against Japan - they play a patient, possession game (average 56% at the WWC) and so have inevitably been called 'Barcelona-esque', but it was a very different style from the more direct approach of the other teams in 2011 which the traditional big teams found very difficult to deal with, and they ground it out, winning on penalties against the USA, who had a shocker in the shoot-out.
3) Whether Brazil will embrace the Olympic spirit and stop rolling around on the floor feigning injury (who says the women are nothing like the men?) and just play the bloody ball, in which case they can be lethal. Their quarter-final against the USA in Germany was probably the game of the tournament, with retaken penalties, late goals, a last-minute equaliser, and Hope Solo. I love Hope.
4) Whether Team GB can put in a good performance - they should get out of the group, but then may struggle. Hope Powell made some bad decisions last year, both on and off the field (criticising her players publicly, making substitutions too early which left England limping and basically down to 9 players in the quarter-final with France), so hopefully that will not re-occur.
A dashboard of the stats from the WWC 2011. You see what I mean about the French defence.
I reckon the answers are 1) maybe, 2) yes, 3) and 4) probably not, so will be tipping USA! USA! to take the gold medal.
I may also cast an eye at the men's competition to see how Belhanda gets on for Morocco. But obviously that's a side issue. Go ladies.