Women's World Cup group preview
Host nation Germany is the strong favorite to emerge as Group A winner
The U.S. is in Group C, widely regarded as the "Group Of Death"
Group B with Japan, England and Mexico appears wide open and well-balanced
A look at each of the groups in the 2011 Women's World Cup:
Group A opens with what promises to be a zinger: Germany versus Canada inside a sold out Olympic Stadium in Berlin. As reigning European champions and winners of the last two World Cups, the Germans are expected to make it three in a row on home soil with Canada, transformed under Carolina Morace, hot on their heels. Nigeria, dominant in Africa, has only escaped the groups once in the past five tournaments, but France is well positioned to take advantage of any slip-ups from the two favorites.
Germany -- Germany didn't concede a single goal in China four years ago and has posted emphatic victories over Canada and Nigeria in its preparation for these finals. The squad is packed with experience, including all-time leading World Cup goal scorer Birgit Prinz, who has a runner-up medal from 1995 among her silverware. But Germany isn't heading over the hill just yet, with young players like Alexandra Popp and Kim Kulig, who both impressed in last year's U-20 World Cup triumph, stepping in to influential roles down the spine.
Canada -- The Canadians are very much in the ascendancy, with Morace bringing a new emphasis on technique over physicality (a hot subject with regards to the U.S. team in the past year) that has in turn brought results, including the 2010 CONCACAF championship. The team looks fitter, more comfortable in possession and attacks at pace -- "this is the way that soccer was meant to be played," Christine Sinclair said recently.
France -- France appears to be slipping under the radar. Though it has an uninspiring record against Group A opposition (seven defeats in nine to Germany), and it qualified top of a group featuring no team better ranked than 16th-placed Iceland, France is playing well, and has a vastly experienced squad including recent Champions League winners such as Camille Abily and Louisa Necib from Olympique Lyonnais.
Nigeria -- Nigeria reached the Under-20 World Cup final (also in Germany) last summer, and several members of the current squad are graduates from that cohort -- coach Ngozi Uche has eight players under 21. That's in keeping with her stated mission, to bring in fresh legs, though she caused upset by admitting that some players had been dropped only because she knew them to be gay. Nigeria's youngsters will play without fear but this is a tough group in which to announce oneself.
On current form, you would tip Japan and England to move in to the knockout stages, but there's a lingering sense that anything could happen in Group B -- Japan has a one in five success rate reaching the quarterfinals, England is unpredictable at tournaments, Mexico proved capable of an upset against the U.S. in November and though New Zealand endured a chastening World Cup experience four years ago, the setup has been transformed since.
England -- Finishing top could be fundamental to any side's chances of progression, given that Germany is likely to wait for the second-placed qualifier in the quarterfinal match in Wolfsburg on July 9; Japan and England have never beaten the host, and Hope Powell's team unraveled in the final half-hour of the 2009 European Championship final, losing 6-2. England's consistent, tidy World Cup qualifying performances attracted attention, however, and recent friendly victories over the U.S. and Sweden suggest that it might now find a meeting with one of the big guns less like running in to a brick wall.
Japan -- Ranked fourth in the world, Japan is the group's seeded team, though the earthquake earlier this year means the squad has had less time together than planned. Not that Norio Sasaki's side, moving quickly forward and defending smartly as a unit, will be an easy one to beat. Homare Sawa controls the midfield and Aya Miyama's alert forward play can be lethal -- as England found four years ago. The pair's July 5 meeting looks pivotal.
Mexico -- Mexico blends youth and experience, with 10 years between dynamo Dinora Garza and super striker Maribel ("Marigol") Dominguez. The emphasis is on attack and Mexico, which usually plays 4-3-3 (though switched to 4-5-1 against the U.S. in a recent friendly), could have nabbed a handful against Australia in a practice match this week. The Matildas' recovery from 0-2 to win 3-2 shows what an organized side can do with possession against Leonardo Cuellar's outfit, though.
New Zealand -- Since going home with zero points and a minus-nine goal difference four years ago, New Zealand has focused on becoming harder to beat and built from there. It romped to victory in the Oceania championship to qualify, scoring 19 goals in the semifinal and final, but struggled against the tougher competition in Cyprus earlier this year. Though New Zealand has never beaten any teams in Group B, past draws with England and Japan hint at potential.
The Group of Death (three of the world's top eight sides in one pool) is also the Group of Déjà vu: this the third time in a row that the U.S., Korea and Sweden have been drawn together in the World Cup groups -- and even in 1999, U.S. and Korea were picked together, too. The U.S. came out on top every time, and despite the caution (some might call it negativity) that has characterized a lot of talk about this U.S. side ahead of the finals, it looks like U.S. plus one other to reach the knockouts.
U.S. -- If the crisis of esteem isn't necessarily misplaced -- the U.S. is not the all-conquering opponent it once was, and has now gone 12 years without a World Cup -- it certainly seems overblown in the circumstances. The U.S. has never failed to reach the semifinals and has a significant psychological advantage given that pedigree, however frustrating teams like Korea have often proven to be. Problems in central midfield could be a worry, but the U.S. has genuine talent down the flanks and goalkeeper Hope Solo will relish the chance to be a hero after being benched against Brazil in 2007.
Korea DPR -- Korea doesn't have a winning record against the rest of the group but is strong on the home front; its compact, possession soccer is effective and tires opponents. Kim Kwang Min has had to manage a number of post-Olympics retirements, taking the youngest of the 16 squads to Germany, but attacking midfielder Jon Myong Hwa made waves at the U-17 and U-20 World Cups, and is still only 17.
Sweden -- The battle with Sweden -- which retains a number of players who exited at the group stage in China, but has lost Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson in the intervening four years -- will be intriguing. The Swedes always seem to be there or thereabouts, but have been going backward at major tournaments since being beaten by Germany in the 2003 final. Much will depend on the influence of Western New York Flash midfielder Caroline Seger and Champions League-winning forward Lotta Schelin.
Colombia -- This is Colombia's first appearance at the World Cup finals and it brings a group of young players, many of whom were part of the team that nabbed a surprise fourth-spot finish at last year's U-20 competition; they will play with no fear, even though the odds are against them. They like to have the ball and show off with it, but the team is also well organized, so certainly should fare better than Argentina, which qualified second behind Brazil at the last two tournaments and conceded 33 goals in six games.
An interesting group, this. Though Brazil and Norway are strongly fancied to top the table, no one can be quite sure how much of a threat Australia poses, which makes July 3 -- when the favorites meet in Wolfsburg shortly after Equatorial Guinea takes on the Matildas in Bochum -- an important day.
Brazil -- It would take something to knock Brazil out of its stride. Kleiton Lima's team won every game to claim the 2010 South American championship, posting a plus-23 goal difference to boot. As well as five-times World Player of the Year Marta, the coach has Cristiane (an equally formidable goal scorer) to call on, and could have the breathing space in the final match against Equatorial Guinea to play younger members of the squad such as Beatriz, Francielle and Thais.
Norway -- Norway always makes it to the knockout stages of the World Cup and European Championships, but hasn't won a title since taking Olympic gold in 2000. Still, Eli Landsem's side qualified from euro Group 5 very comfortably, and withstood the retirements of players like Bente Nordby and Solveig Gulbrandsen pretty well thanks to Ingrid Hjelmseth and Ingvild Stenslad. Norway's powerful, direct soccer could sting distracted defences, especially with Cecilie Pedersen up front -- she scored six goals in 10 international appearances.
Australia -- Australia coach Tom Sermanni is not talking about getting out of this group, at least not publicly. More than half his squad will be at the World Cup for the first time, most are in their early 20s, and there are several players out through injury. But this is the nation that made a surprise run to the quarters in 2007, and since then a national league has been set up which means Sermanni's youngsters -- Sam Kerr and Kyah Simon look particularly exciting -- at least have plenty of soccer under their belts. Triumph at the 2010 Asian Cup with victories over Japan and Korea DPR highlighted Australia's improving skill and tenacity.
Equatorial Guinea -- Equatorial Guinea's journey to its first finals has been mired in controversy, with the association being accused of knowingly fielding several men, including Salimata and Bilguisa Simpore, neither of whom feature in the final squad. Complaints also emerged that Salimata had already represented Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, and the number of quickly naturalized players -- coupled with Guinea's impressive rise up the standings -- has upset people in the African championship; the team has only been formed in the last 10 years. New Potsdam forward Genoveva Anonman can be dangerous, but expectations are fairly low.
Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-editor of http://www.retrombm.com/.