The group stage of this Women’s World Cup is officially over, and with it, any forgiveness available for the teams left. From here on out, each loss means players will be headed home, and there are no more draws — penalty shootouts will decide games if necessary. In a tournament full of surprises, that assures that they will continue. It remains to be seen whether this year’s upstarts were simply stronger than expected or if they can craft sustained runs. Some of the most talented teams that have faltered also have a new chance to pull things together.
The most vulnerable contender on Saturday’s schedule has to be Norway. The Norwegians barely made it out of a chaotic group, and their star, Ada Hegerberg, is still doubtful with a groin injury. Norway is set to face Japan, a longtime international talent that many seemed to underestimate heading into this World Cup. Spain and the Netherlands will be looking to hold off their opponents or join the ranks of Germany and Canada, international powerhouses that failed to perform to their expectations.
Switzerland vs. Spain
Switzerland won a group that eliminated one of the tournament’s host countries, New Zealand, and featured at least two major upsets. Not bad for a team that failed to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. But now, the Swiss must face Spain — a top contender for the title that was actually acting like a top contender, decisively beating Costa Rica and Zambia, before stumbling in a rout to Japan, 4-0. The Spaniards now need to answer, and a win over Switzerland would achieve Spain’s goal of advancing deep into this tournament. The Swiss have only one win so far, over the Philippines, 2-0, and had scoreless ties the rest of the group stage. Spain, on the other hand, has scored eight goals so far this tournament.
Japan vs. Norway
Norway is in trouble. The Norwegians were knocking on the door of an early exit from this World Cup until their rout of the Philippines, 6-0, which saw them through to the round of 16. That result finally made Norway look like the team it thought it was heading into this tournament, with aspirations of lifting the trophy. But after losing to New Zealand and drawing with Switzerland, this team knows anything is still possible — including going home — and that routing a newcomer like the Philippines isn’t exactly a clear test. Elimination will be all the more possible if Hegerberg, Norway’s star striker, can’t play.
Japan emerged from the group stage as the No. 1 seed out of Group C. The message was clear: This is one of the most dangerous teams left in the tournament. The Japanese haven’t lost yet, and have scored a whopping 11 goals. Underestimated for years, Japan is showing itself to be the team to beat.
Netherlands vs. South Africa
The Netherlands won Group E and was rewarded with avoiding Sweden in the first knockout match. Instead, the Dutch will face South Africa on Sunday in Sydney Australia (10 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday night). South Africa topped Italy, 3-2, in the 92nd minute to secure a spot in the round of 16. The South Africans are not to be underestimated — they have lost only one match so far, to Sweden, 2-1, and are led by striker Thembi Kgatlana, who has already scored two goals in this World Cup.
And while the Netherlands fared better against Vietnam than the United States did, winning, 7-0, the Dutch barely put away Portugal, 1-0, and drew with the Americans, 0-0. This could be anyone’s game.