France vs. Germany quarterfinal too close to call

Germany's Anja Mittag (11) celebrates scoring against Sweden during the first-half of round-of-16. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

MONTREAL — The first heavyweight encounter of the FIFA Women’s World Cup is upon us as number-one ranked Germany will meet No. 3 France in the quarterfinals on Friday at Olympic Stadium.

After topping their respective groups, the European powerhouses easily dispatched of their round of 16 opponents. Striker Celia Sasic led the charge for Germany with two goals in a 4-1 defeat of Sweden, while France cruised to a 3-0 win over South Korea after two quick-fire tallies gave Les Bleues a lead inside 10 minutes.

Although carrying an air of confidence Thursday in their separate pre-game press conferences, both coaches offered no verbal jabs or bold pronouncements. Instead they complimented each other’s teams and were careful not to have the label of favourites thrust upon them.

“Who said that we are stronger than France? I did not say that,” Germany coach Silvia Neid answered through an interpreter, responding to one German journalist who suggested she had once stated as much.

“We will see who is stronger (on Friday). The fact is that it’s a match that will be played at a high level. Sometimes good teams will neutralize each other, and hopefully luck will be on our side if it comes to that.”

Asked if there was a particular player in the French squad that posed a significant threat, Neid emphasized France’s collective ability.

“You cannot just name one player, if you name one you have to name another one because they are all very well trained, they are technically very skilled, they have a high degree of game intelligence and they play the game really well,” Neid offered. “We all have to do really good team work, and if we manage that, then we believe that we can win (the) match.”

Pointing to the fact that France has yet to hoist the Women’s World Cup trophy—its best finish was fourth place in 2011—and that Germany has already won the tournament on two occasions (in 2003 and 2007) French coach Philippe Bergeroo said that Germany is the favourite to progress to the semifinal.

“Were playing the first ranked team in FIFA, compared to this team—we are the outsiders,” Bergeroo said. “For us we are trying to be humble, we haven’t won anything yet, and were playing a team that has won a number of titles, but we have a lot of ambition.”

Bergeroo described the game as one of contrasting styles, where Germany will look to press high up the field, play at a high tempo and boss the game physically, and France will try to “lean on” its technical ability.

“We know that Germany is going to be high pressing and be enormous physically, and we know we have other qualities,” Bergeroo stated. “Of course in the first 20 minutes we need to make sure we’re ready to be present in the 50-50 duels.”

In their last meeting in October, France beat Germany 2-0 in a friendly game, but Bergeroo played down the result.

Asked about the characteristics of her team compared to the German side that hoisted the 2007 World Cup in China, Neid said that the German women’s soccer program has evolved by leaps and bounds.

“I think women’s soccer has developed quite a lot since 2007; the German team from 2007 would not be able to win this year and the teams that finished second or third place then could not reach those same places this year,” Neid opined.

“Players are better developed now, are more intelligent, and more skilled and the games are much faster. What characterizes us this year is that we have followed this trend in women’s soccer and shown these qualities.”

The French soccer association has also devoted more resources to the women’s game over the last few years and Neid spoke highly of the strides the French program has made in developing women soccer players.

“I think that the French team is a very good team, a team that has been working very hard to get results,” Neid said. “They have great training in Clairfontaine (France’s national soccer centre), the youth teams play very well and I think that they have the belief that they have what it takes to go all the way, and we know that it will be hard work for us.”

French defender Wendie Renard admitted that Germany has been ahead of France in terms of player development, but insisted that the difference between the two nations is no longer as wide as it used to be.

“We’re getting stronger every year and we want to show that the gap is closing,” she said.

NOTES: Veteran German defender Saskia Bartusiak will miss the quarterfinal due to yellow card accumulation and Neid was tight-lipped about who would start in her place … Germany’s Anja Mittag and Celia Sasic are the tournament’s leading scorers with five goals apiece; France’s Eugenie Le Sommer and Marie Laure Delie are tied in second with three goals…The winner of France-Germany will face the winner of United States-China match, who play on Friday at Lansdowne Stadium in Ottawa.