Preview : Olympic Football Group G – France v Colombia, USWNT, New Zealand

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Football at Rio2016 kicks off today, Wednesday 3rd August, two days before the opening ceremony. Team FFW previews Group G with words from Philippa Booth, and Janai Garrett on the USWNT. 

Her name is Rio. France will not be represented in the Men’s tournament, after the U21s buggered up the play-off to qualify for the 2015 U21 Euros, used as the Olympic qualifying tournament for UEFA. So French focus will be on les Bleues, qualified thanks to their performance at the 2015 World Cup, where they and Germany were the top two UEFA-eligible teams (England being ineligible for reasons).

The format is the traditionally confusing twelve-team three-group system with the best two third-place teams progressing with the top two from each group. And France’s group is a doozy. They will face Colombia, reigning champions USA, and then New Zealand.

Olympic groups

The first thing to note is that there isn’t a cannon-fodder team in Group G (elsewhere, you suspect Zimbabwe may have a tough time) whereas in groups E and F, the top three teams in ranking terms should all manage one win, making it likely that the the third-placed qualifiers will come from here. The second is that France have bad memories not just of the USA (understandably) but also the Colombian team whom they met at the World Cup. Focus will be key. Focus has not always been their strength.

France

France will be looking to build on their creditable fourth-place showing at London 2012, where they came second in a group with (deja vu) USA, Colombia and North Korea, and beat Sweden in the quarter-finals before losing to Japan in the semi, and to Canada in the bronze-medal match.

With the exception of Montpellier’s Sakina Karchaoui, in as a replacement for an injured Laura Georges, all of the France squad played in the World Cup, although only eight remain from the London 2012 squad. The familiar faces are reliable, the new faces exciting – particularly leftback Amel Majri (UNFP best player 2015/16) and centre-back Griedge Mbock Bathy (UNFP best young player 2015/16), Juvisy’s Kadidiatou Diani and OL’s Claire Lavogez. OL are the best represented club at the Olympics, with 14 players (China’s Dalian Quanjian second on eight) including 12 of the French squad – both keepers, yes, but they could field an entire starting XI, which would be decent.

As a side-point, a certain midfielder’s recent name-change from Necib (on the FFF website) to Cadamuro (on her shirt), taking in Necib-Cadamuro (elsewhere on the FFF website, L’Equipe), led to the TV team in recent friendlies just giving up and just calling her ‘Louisa’, making it sound like Brazil had got involved. This will be her last hurrah before retiring – saying she didn’t think it possible to balance her private – newly married – life, with her sporting career.

France’s preparation has been against two other Olympic teams, with a 3-0 win over China followed by a tighter 1-0 victory over Canada. In the first match, it’s fair to say that goalkeeper Zhao Li Na had a bad day at the office: the opener saw her failing to deal with Majri’s cross in to Le Sommer which left her well out of position for the follow-up by Diani, the second a failed (but maybe understandable) attempt to challenge Wendie Renard in the air (oh, the marking) as she headed in Cadamuro’s freekick, and the third a penalty from Lavogez which was not well struck, and the keeper went the right way, but couldn’t reach it. Back-up French keeper Meline Gerrard had little to do, but was firm on the one punch she was called upon to make.

Canada were a tougher proposition, and interestingly a carbon copy of the Cadamuro freekick / Renard header from the China game didn’t come off here, demonstrating what a competent goalkeeper can bring to the party as Stephanie Labbé had a very good game. The difference was made by a worldy freekick from Camille Abily, which drew a rueful, ‘what the hell was I supposed to do with that?‘ smile from Labbé.

This points up something important – as we have repeatedly noted, France’s conversion rate against good teams is poor from open play, despite the energy that Le Sommer and Elodie Thomis can bring to the party; unless that changes significantly, set-pieces will be key.

France are third favourites with hosts Brazil, behind Germany and, inevitably, the USA. At London 2012, they went 2-0 up against the USWNT, which seemed too good to be true – and it was, as they were clawed back with four goals from the American machine. They finished in second place in the group then, and it is difficult to see how they could better that this time; but they only need to equal it to get to the knock-out stages. France should be aiming for at least a semi-final appearance; beyond that, is the dream.

Squad : Bouhaddi, Gerard – Delannoy, Houara, Karchaoui, Majri, Mbock Bathy, Renard – Abily, Bussaglia, Diani, Hamraoui, Henry, Lavogez, Necib-Cadamuro, Thomis – Delie, Le Sommer

USA

The United States Women’s National Soccer team knows nothing but success. After three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals, the Stars and Stripes are back for more as they take on France, New Zealand and Colombia in their quest for another.

As reigning World and Olympic champions, the USWNT go into the Olympics with a stunning fifteen-game unbeaten record in 2016. This included winning all five matches at the Cconcacaf qualifying tournament to nil, beating Canada 2-0 in the final, and beating France 1-0 with a goal from Alex Morgan as they won the inaugural SheBelieves Cup in March. In their most recent tune-up match before heading to Brazil, they defeated Concacaf neighbors Costa Rica 4-0, in front of a home crowd in Kansas City. Stars such as Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, Christen Press and Alex Morgan shine on as they head to Rio.

Unlike this year, when the USWNT entered the Olympic games in 2012 the main goal was revenge after losing to Japan in a painful shootout during the final of the 2011 World Cup. This time, the focus is on making and breaking history. If the USWNT gain success in this year’s Olympics, they would be the first team to be victorious in a World Cup and an Olympic tournament in consecutive years. It’s a goal that is achievable.

The USWNT will be led in goal by Hope Solo who will more than likely be backed up by Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg and Kelly O’Hara, who in 2015 created one of the most dominating defences in the world. In front of them, the team is also not short of talent: Houston Dash midfielder and current FIFA World Player of the year Carli Lloyd will lead the midfield and be one of the players to watch at the tournament. The decorated Olympian, whose star power rose after a successful 2015 World Cup, scored the gold-medal winning goals in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games and has over 200 caps for her national team. Though at times overshadowed by up-and-coming Alex Morgan or now-retired Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd will be one of the key players to the team’s success. The attack will be the most difficult thing to assess due to the retirement of Abby Wambach after the World Cup; her leadership and presence within the national team will be greatly missed during the tournament, but will be placed on Alex Morgan who gets the chance to prove yet again that she is a potential star of this talented team.

As well as having a team of established stars, the USA also possesses many new talents such as 24-year old midfielder Crystal Dunn who is ready to make her first major tournament appearance after being snubbed for a position on the World Cup team. Last season, Dunn scored a whopping 15 goals with her club team, Washington Spirit, and with a good tournament can cement her position as a star with the U.S.

The Olympics are nothing but familiar territory for the USWNT. In a competition which they know so well with an experienced team hungry for more success, the Americans are heavy favourites to win gold and make history yet again.

Squad : Solo, Naeher – Sauerbrunn, O’Hara, Engen, Klingenberg, Johnston, Krieger – Long, Horan, Lloyd, Brian, Rapinoe, Heath – Pugh, Press, Morgan, Dunn

Colombia

Colombia qualified for this tournament by coming second to Brazil in the 2014 Copa America, and 16 of this squad were at the World Cup, where they pulled off a big upset by beating France 2-0 in the group stage, with goals from Lady Andrade and Catalina Usme. This was a match that again demonstrated France’s biggest problem – being efficient against a half-decent team. The stats were pointed – France had 60% possession and 21 shots to 3. As well as the creativity of Andrade, that day they benefited from a stubborn defence, characterised by a storming performance from Sandra Sepulveda in goal, making six saves. Unlike England, who adapted their game significantly in the game against France, Colombia had the courage of their convictions and went for it in their usual style – they were frequently stopped, but when they got through, well, they got through.

Colombia are one of the youngest and and the least experienced sides at the tournament (note: no cap details are available for Zimbabwe where we’re looking…) but have proved that they can play, and have a decent mix of domestic and foreign-based players. As the opening fixture for France, given recent history, this could be a nerve-inducing match. If Sepulveda can pull off the same sort of performance she did last time, the French attack will need to up the efficiency, and the French defence will need to make very sure that they stay focused on an attack capable of some impressive moves.

Squad : Perez, Sepulveda – Echeverri, Salazar, Pineda, Velasquez, Clavijo, N Arias, C Arias – Arbelaez, Gaitan, Ospina, Santos, Usme, Ariza – Vidal, Regnier, Andrade

New Zealand

All of the squad were at the World Cup, where they finished bottom of their group with draws to Canada and China after losing to the Netherlands, but they are one of the most experienced sides at the tournament, and have a pretty stingy defence. They last met France in a friendly in 2014 which Les Bleues won 2-1 with goals from Le Sommer and Diani.

New Zealand perhaps struggle from not having much competition in their home federation of Oceania – they played three qualifiers to reach the World Cup, scoring 30 in the process; for the Olympics they were bye-d through to a play-off against Papua New Guinea: they won the first leg 7-1 then saw their opponents pull out of the second leg due to visa issues. However they are stalwarts of the scene, reaching the quarter-finals in 2012 (where they lost 2-0 to the USA) as one of the best third-place teams in a tough group featuring Team GB, Brazil, and Cameroon, their losses to the top two each only 1-0. Scoring seems to be their problem, but as well as Amber Hearn (50 goals in 112 games), Liverpool’s Rosie White will be looking to make an impact on the scoring charts at this tournament.

Squad : Nayler, Rolls – Percival, Green, Erceg, Stott, Riley, Moore – Duncan (nee Hoyle), Yallop, Hassett, Bowen, Longo – Pereira, Hearn, Gregorius, White, Wilkinson

Schedule (BST) :

Thursday 4 August 02:00 – France v Colombia
Saturday 6 August 21:00 – France v USA
Tuesday 9 August 23:00 – France v New Zealand

Note that the time difference throws up some date issues, so the first match is 2am BST/3am CEST on Thursday morning – also more detail can be found on the FIFA website than the official Rio site. An interactive dashboard using BIME by Zendesk, based on the available squad stats, FIFA ranking and indicative odds, is available here.

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