With so many con­tenders at this World Cup, top-ranked Ger­many faces a tough bracket in its pur­suit of the ti­tle

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By David Whar­ton

OT­TAWA — It didn’t seem to mat­ter that Ger­many had just won.

Too many passes had veered off tar­get for Me­lanie Le­upolz’s lik­ing. Too many shots had sailed wide of the goal.

“I wish we’d had a bet­ter match,” the midfielder said, “to give our team more con­fi­dence.”

For the top-ranked squad in the world, there is only one ac­cept­able re­sult at this Women’s World Cup.

So the Ger­mans did not ex­actly celebrate when they fin­ished group play un­de­feated with a 4-0 vic­tory over Thai­land on Mon­day af­ter­noon. They were al­ready think­ing ahead to the start of knock­out games. Ger­many plays Swe­den on Satur­day af­ter­noon in the open­ing game of the round of 16.

“We came here with a dream,” Coach Sil­via Neid said. “Our dream is to win the World Cup.”

Her squad has some ex­pe­ri­ence in that depart­ment, hoist­ing the tro­phy in 2003 and 2007. But this time fig­ures to be tougher.

A jum­ble of teams — in­clud­ing Brazil, Ja­pan and host Canada — have a re­al­is­tic shot at the ti­tle. To reach the fi­nal, Ger­many must sur­vive a bracket that in­cludes No. 3 France and the No. 2 Amer­i­cans.

“We’re one of the fa­vorites,” Neid said. “But there are many other coun­tries that could win.”

Even if her play­ers don’t feel the pres­sure of ex­pec­ta­tions, there will be other emo­tional fac­tors.

This is Neid’s fi­nal trip to the World Cup af­ter a decade at the helm. She and her team are hop­ing to end on a high note while eras­ing bit­ter mem­o­ries from four years ago.

Ger­many hosted the World Cup in 2011 with a chance to win an un­prece­dented third-con­sec­u­tive cham­pi­onship on home soil. It rolled through the early rounds be­fore run­ning into Ja­pan in the quar­ter­fi­nals.

The Nadeshiko scored in the 108th minute for a 1-0 up­set vic­tory. Neid mused: “This is what I feared would hap­pen.”

Ger­many’s coach has down­played any need for re­demp­tion in Canada, say­ing: “Quite the con­trary, I think you can learn a lot from games or tour­na­ments you lost.”

Cer­tainly the last few years have seen changes for her team.

Six new faces con­trib­uted to a UEFA Women’s Euro ti­tle in 2013, re­vi­tal­iz­ing a ros­ter that still in­cludes goal­keeper Na­dine Angerer — a for­mer world player of the year — and for­ward Anja Mit­tag.

“Ev­ery­body wants to start,” de­fender An­nike Krahn said. “There is a lit­tle bit of com­pe­ti­tion within the team.”

Depth comes in handy with mid­field­ers Luisa Wens­ing and Na­dine Kessler — yet another world player of the year — lost to in­jury.

The draw of­fered early re­lief as Ger­many landed in a group that in­cluded two low-ranked teams. Mit­tag and Celia Sa­sic had three goals each in an open­ing 10-0 vic­tory over one of those un­der­dogs, Ivory Coast.

But a few cracks showed in a sub­se­quent 1-1 tie against ri­val Nor­way.

Af­ter tak­ing an early lead, the Ger­mans strayed from their pre­ferred ap­proach, try­ing to force the ball up the mid­dle in­stead of us­ing speed on the flanks.

“If you look at the firsthalf stats, we were lucky,” Nor­we­gian Coach Even Pellerud said. “They could have killed this game in the first half.”

There were fur­ther con­cerns against Thai­land.

Neid chose to make use of her bench, pre­sum­ably rest­ing sev­eral play­ers for later in the tour­na­ment. Ger­many held a ten­u­ous 1-0 lead at half­time be­fore open­ing a com­fort­able gap by us­ing its size and strength on set plays and deny­ing the Thais any op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“We could not at­tack,” Thai Coach Nuen­gru­tai Srathong­vian said. “We met an op­po­nent that was a bet­ter group than we were.”

Now comes the do-or-die part of the sched­ule.

If noth­ing else, Ger­many heads into the round of 16 with im­pres­sive sta­tis­tics, lead­ing the tour­na­ment with 15 goals and 92 shots over three games.

“They are very skill­ful, very calm un­der pres­sure,” Pellerud said. “Their moves off the ball are at a top level.”

As the win­ner of Group B, the Ger­mans also got five days to pre­pare for Swe­den — the third-place team from Group D. Rest could be cru­cial given that syn­thetic turf is es­pe­cially tax­ing.

And plenty of work lies ahead.

Though the Swedes failed to win in group play, ad­vanc­ing with three draws, they are ranked No. 5 in the world and de­feated Ger­many in the Algarve Cup three months ago.

At this stage of the tour­na­ment, the mar­gin for er­ror will be nar­row and there won’t be as many scor­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

More of those Ger­man passes must be true. More of those shots must find their mark.

“There are tour­na­ments that go well and there are tour­na­ments that don’t go so well and you end up los­ing,” Neid said. “We’ll see how far we can get.”

Car­men Jaspersen Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

COACH SIL­VIA NEID and her play­ers celebrate Ger­many’s open­ing goal against Ivory Coast in the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

Dennis Grom­bkowski

ANJA MIT­TAG of Ger­many scores the sixth goal against Ivory Coast in an open­ing 10-0 vic­tory. Mit­tag and Celia Sa­sic had three goals each in that game.

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