Euro Matchday 2

So much football in the past four days (another 24 games, bringing the two week total to 62) that I’ll be focusing just on the second round of group games in the Euros here, with another post on the W Championship Semifinals, the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations quarterfinals, and the second and third rounds of group play in the Copa América Femenina, the latter of which finishes up this evening.

As frequently happens in tournament football, things opened up in the second round of group play, producing statement victories in Groups A and B, plus the match of the tournament (thus far) in Group C–of which, more in a moment. Germany’s 2-0 win over Spain was a more interesting game than England’s historic 8-0 drubbing of Norway. Without taking anything away from England’s excellence, Norway did seem to give up, unable or unwilling to revise a game plan that clearly wasn’t working.

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Spain, on the other hand, were much better than many have given them credit for. While pundits focused on Germany’s pressing as unsettling Spain, they actually seemed pretty comfortable passing around it. Moreover, this Spanish side was no slouch at pressing themselves, a critical element of their possession game and one that this side, like Vicente del Bosque’s all-conquering men’s team, uses as a defensive as well as an offensive strategy. As such the game became a contest of contrasting national styles, German gegen-pressing against Spanish tiki-taka.

And while Spain did struggle to turn their possession into chances, they were again not so far behind Germany as some suggested. Though they were two goals down at halftime, Spain only trailed Germany by 0.12 in expected goals (0.48 – 0.36), by one shot on goal (2-1), and were level on shots overall (5). That means that Germany scored with their only two first half shots on target, the first of those gifted by a poor pass from goalkeeper Sandra Paños that seemed more an unforced error than the fruits of German pressing.

By the end of the game, Spain would be significantly ahead in both xG (1.38 – 0.79) and shots (on goal) (12 [3] – 7 [2]); and while those numbers were undoubtedly shaped by Germany’s two-goal lead, they again suggest a team that was offering something more than sterile possession. The point is not that Germany were not deserving winners; in fact, this win was significantly more impressive than their 4-0 domination of Denmark (and should have been 3-0, given Irene Parades’s clear denial of a goal-scoring opportunity on Alexandra Popp). But it was impressive precisely because of the quality of Spain’s performance against them.

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The best game of the round, however, was the Netherlands’ win over a resilient Portugal. Having come from two goals down to tie Switzerland in the previous round, Portugal again conceded two early goals, both off poorly defended left corners. But while the goals may have come from set pieces, the Dutch also dominated the run of play from 5′ to 25′.

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It was around this point that Portugal made a key tactical tweak, switching from the relatively narrow 4-3-1-2 they had employed in their first match as well to a wider and deeper-lying 4-3-3. Diana Silva switched from a free role beneath strikers to playing alone up top, with Ana Borges and Jéssica Silva pushing out as wingers, positioned wide and deep to contribute more substantially when defending. It also facilitated Portugal’s transition from defense to offense, making them much more threatening on the break. Shortly after the half-hour mark, Andreia Norton played Diana Silva into the box for a light but clear foul that led to Portugal’s first via penalty. Then, at the start of the second half, Silva slipped into the 6-yard box to head in an equalizer off Carole Costa’s left cross.

The Netherlands responded immediately, Jill Roord netting off a left cross in from an unfortunately offside Lyneth Beerensteyn. But the initiative was shifting again, and just after the hour mark, a quick, clever throw-in by Marisa Olislagers set Lieke Martens up to assist Danielle van de Donk for one of the goals of the tournament, a game-winner from curled from outside the box into the top right corner. Portugal brought on fresh legs in response, but ultimately weren’t able to break the Dutch down in a tense and chippy end to the game.

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I will confess that I have not watched as much of Group D as I should have, but the highlights suggests that France’s victory over Belgium was more commanding than the 2-1 scoreline suggests, notwithstanding a truly lovely goal from Janice Cayman to briefly equalize.

With England, Germany, and France effectively qualified, the action in all but Group C will focus on one-off games to decide the 2nd team advancing. This is literally true for the winners of Austria – Norway this afternoon and Denmark – Spain tomorrow. While Iceland could theoretically advance from Group D with a win against France on Monday, it seems more likely that the winner of Italy – Belgium will do so (though Iceland could also advance with a tie given the same result between Italy and Belgium).

That leaves Sunday’s Group C, where favorites Sweden and the Netherlands need at least a tie against Portugal and Switzerland, respectively, to secure their spots in the quarterfinals. With the second-place finisher set play France, the nature of the win will also matter. Tied on both points and goal difference, Netherlands currently leads the group by having scored one more goal than Sweden; so the greater margin of victory will determine who avoids les Bleus (and technically, Sweden could also pip the Dutch by scoring two more goals than them with same margin of victory–3-3 to 1-1, for instance. Should they do so by one more goal, I’m not sure who would advance).

Unless you have some sort of multi-game viewing arrangement, Sweden – Portugal is probably the one to tune in for. In terms of entertainment value, Portugal have been one of the teams of the tournament, coming from two goals down to equalize twice, and they are probably the better bet to produce an upset if one is going to occur. Looking forward to Switzerland and Ramona Bachmann proving me wrong. Back tomorrow with the rest of the (women’s international football) world.

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