Qualification Battle Reaches Fever Pitch at Women's Olympic Tournament

Andrew Gibney@@gibney_aFeatured ColumnistAugust 9, 2016

Germany's Alexandra Popp will be looking for goals against Canada.
Germany's Alexandra Popp will be looking for goals against Canada.Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Going into the last set of group fixtures in the women's football tournament, Canada, hosts Brazil and reigning champions USA have already sealed their place in the knockout stages. On Tuesday, nine more teams will go into the games with the hope of joining them, in their continued hunt for an Olympic medal.

Over in Brasilia, Canada takes on Germany at the Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha, and no one is quite sure what to expect.

On paper, Silvia Neid's Germany team will begin as favourites, but after their 2-2 draw against Australia, where they had to come back from two goals down, the jury is out on the 2015 FIFA World Cup semi-finalists.

Canada have a 100 percent record after wins against the Matildas and Zimbabwe, but there is a chance that coach John Herdman will make changes to rest some key players, drop the points and finish second in the group.

The reason behind that is the prospect of who they will face in the quarter-final.

The team that finishes runner-up in Group F, Canada's group, will play the runner-up in Group E—currently China or Sweden, both on three points—however, the winner of Group F will face the runner-up in Group G, which is currently France.

With no disrespect to either China or Sweden, results at this Olympics and the potential danger of all three sides, you would want to avoid France at this stage.

Kadeisha Buchanan, one of Canada's most impressive defenders over the past few years, picked up a suspicious yellow card against Zimbabwe—booked for not retreating 10 yards—and she will miss the Germany match through suspension, but she will return in the next round.

Herdman is also likely to rest all-time leading scorer Christine Sinclair after she played the full 90 minutes against the Mighty Warriors. Expect to see Nichelle Prince or 17-year-old Deanne Rose start up front.

Canada will not want to lose, they have never matched the Germans in any of their previous 12 meetings, losing all 12, but the prospect of an easier route to the semi-finals is an enticing prospect.

The Matildas celebrate scoring against Germany.
The Matildas celebrate scoring against Germany.Nelson Antoine/Associated Press

Australia coach Alen Stajcic faces a must-win situation against Zimbabwe. Sitting on just one point after two games, the Matildas need to take the positives from going 2-0 up against Germany and look for goals against the Africans.

Speaking after the draw with the Germans, Stajcic told the press (per FourFourTwo):

At the end of the day you’re playing against a really good opponent and if you drop your guard for one second they can punish you and that’s what happens at a high level of international sport.

Now we’re on one point and have to focus on our next performance and get a win against Zimbabwe and hopefully sneak through.

If we get to the quarter-finals, we’re a good chance against anyone just like we showed tonight. All the teams in the top 10 of women’s football can now beat each other.

With the two best third-placed teams going through, and New Zealand, Sweden and China all on three points, nothing but a win will be good enough. All the sides go into the last game with a negative goal difference, so a good score against Zimbabwe will put Stajcic's team in a strong position.

Lotta Schelin scores against Brazil.
Lotta Schelin scores against Brazil.Harry How/Getty Images

There is also a huge fixture in Group E as China and Sweden do battle in Brasilia. Sitting on the same points, they know that the winner will automatically qualify for the quarter-finals behind hosts Brazil and the loser will have an agonising wait to see if they can squeeze through as one of the best third-placed teams.

Sweden, with much expected of them after a poor World Cup in 2015, have to bounce back from a devastating 5-1 defeat to Brazil.

They were ripped apart in Rio, and Pia Sundhage's team, led by striker Lotta Schelin, need to regroup and put the past behind them.

Schelin told FIFA.com:

It’s going to be a special situation; we’ve got to try and recover and we’re travelling to Brasilia as well. First of all, we have to watch out for our bodies to get our strength back. Only then will we talk about China, to focus and see what we can do to beat them.

China managed to recover well after their 3-0 defeat to the hosts, beating South Africa 2-0 with Tan Ruyin scoring a stunning long-range effort.

"China is a beautiful country but we haven't been ready to go home," coach Bruno Bini said, according to Yao Youming of Xinhuanet.com.

"But if you have left your toothbrush in Rio, I suggest you buy a new one," the 61-year-old Frenchman said, hinting at the fact that the runners-up in Group E will play their quarter-final match in Salvador.

Goal difference would mean that China only need a draw from Tuesday's match, but Bini has warned his players that thinking they had already qualified would be the wrong move. "Sweden is a dangerous opponent for us."

Brazil will be looking to score more goals and excite the home crowd against South Africa in Manaus. The men's team have recorded two opening goalless draws, so the prospect of a football medal could lie solely with the fabulous women's side.

USA beat France 1-0 in their second game.
USA beat France 1-0 in their second game.Eugenio Savio/Associated Press

Over in Group G, there isn't much to play for as Colombia face the USA, also in Manaus. Jill Ellis' side have won two from two, and this could be a chance for them to open up and play with a bit of freedom.

With qualification already guaranteed, the English coach will be able to rotate her selection and make sure all members of her 18-player squad have picked up some playing time.

“Gone are the days where it’s just about two players’ partnerships,” said Ellis, according to Kevin Baxter of the Orlando Sentinel. “This team’s evolved now to where it’s about the total team attack, the total team defending. And everybody knowing their role."

Rested against France, Mallory Pugh could come back into the starting line-up, although there is a chance that Megan Rapinoe could make her first appearance at the Olympics.

Also, if Ellis wants to rest Julie Johnston in defence, Ali Krieger is waiting for her first minutes of the Games.

“With such a short turnaround we have to use every single player on this roster,” said midfielder Morgan Brian. “And that’s what’s really cool about this tournament: Every single player is going to be needed at some time.”

Colombia are having their own problems. Catalina Usme has an issue with her left leg, and both Carolina Arias and star-striker Lady Andrade are reportedly suffering from exhaustion, reports Anne M. Peterson of AP Sports.

France's 1-0 defeat to the USA puts their place in the next round under threat. They face New Zealand in their final fixture, with both teams on three points.

A draw would see Philippe Bergeroo's team qualify for the quarter-finals, and although the Football Ferns have only scored one goal so far, they can't be taken lightly.

One positive for New Zealand will be the availability of Abby Erceg for the final group game, with her shocking red-card decision overturned by officials, and the captain will be able to line up against Les Bleues.

Coach Tony Readings told RadioNZ:

It means a massive amount for the team and probably more so, just really pleased for Abby because she is a massive part of this team, the most experienced player, very professional in what she does. It would have been very undeserved if she wasn't able to play in this next game.

France will start as favourites, needing just a point, but this is the Olympics and you never know when it is going to throw up a fairytale result.

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