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England and Japan sense World Cup chance as US falter, Germany flop

Germany’s shock exit and the United States’ plodding performances were just two of the surprises of a wild Women’s World Cup group stage, with England and Japan now leading the charge when the knockouts begin on Saturday.

It has been the story of the World Cup: the lower-ranked teams have dramatically closed the gap on the sides traditionally regarded as the best.

Last year’s European finalists Germany became the highest-profile victim yet, dumped out in the group stage for the first time in their history on Thursday, with debutants Morocco progressing.

South Africa, Jamaica and Nigeria are also into the last 16; Brazil, Italy and Olympic champions Canada are all out.

The USA flew to Australia and New Zealand as the favourites to defend their title and win an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup.

But Vlatko Andonovski’s side only squeezed into the knockout rounds, their performances making it hard to make a case for them reaching the final in Sydney on August 20.

They limped into the last 16 with a 0-0 draw against debutants Portugal and now play Sweden on Sunday in Melbourne.

The fixture is a World Cup classic. They have met in the last five editions, each time in the group stage, with the Americans winning three of them against one draw and one defeat.

“I feel like it wouldn’t be a major tournament if we were not facing Sweden,” said USA captain Lindsey Horan.

Sweden are ranked third in the world, reached the 2019 semi-finals and were silver medallists at the Tokyo Olympics, so another heavyweight will be heading home this weekend.

Under the radar

That could present an opportunity to someone else, and the pre-tournament focus on the strong European contingent means a clinical Japan have come from under the radar.

Japan face a Norway side on Saturday whose campaign has been clouded by talk of squad disharmony and injury to Ada Hegerberg.

Japan won the World Cup in 2011 and were runners-up in 2015, but were dismissed before this tournament, even back home.

“I think we were left behind by the sudden strides that the rest of the world were making,” former Japan coach Asako Takakura, who led the team in 2019, told AFP before the tournament.

But they were one of three teams to win all three group games — England and Sweden were the others — were top scorers with 11 goals and did not concede.

They destroyed Spain 4-0 with their direct running and clinical finishing, and Hinata Miyazawa leads the race for the golden boot with four goals.

England belatedly roar

But it is European champions England who are now the bookies’ favourites, overcoming injuries to roll into the knockout phase after demolishing China 6-1.

England might feel the draw is opening up kindly, with surprise-package Colombia or Jamaica waiting in the quarter-finals if they beat Nigeria in Brisbane on Monday.

They have an outstanding coach in Sarina Wiegman and one of the tournament’s breakout stars in Lauren James, although they will be eager to get key midfielder Keira Walsh back from a knee problem.

“I think we are growing into this tournament,” warned Wiegman.

France and 2019 runners-up the Netherlands look dangerous too, and both appear to have kind draws.

Then there is Australia, with the co-hosts now playing Denmark after surviving a scare to qualify.

They have a nation behind them and will hope star striker Sam Kerr has recovered from the calf injury that ruined her group stage.

Saturday’s first last-16 tie sees Spain try to bounce back from that Japan defeat against solid but unspectacular Switzerland.

Spain are waiting for reigning Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas to rediscover her best form after a serious knee injury.

‘Minnows’ make case

The so-called outsiders will be aiming to continue their fairytale runs.

Morocco play France while South Africa face the Dutch.

Morocco lost 6-0 to Germany on their World Cup debut but ended up qualifying instead of them.

Theirs is a sensational achievement, as is that of South Africa and Jamaica, two teams that had never won a World Cup game before.

Jamaica advanced for a clash with Colombia despite turbulent preparations caused by an open dispute with their federation.

“We hope that they’re looking at us and taking us seriously now,” said goalkeeper Rebecca Spencer.

The success of those nations has justified FIFA’s decision to expand the tournament to 32 teams.

With so many surprises so far, nobody would bet against them.