The Final Four. Not in the basketball sense but even better: the Women’s World Cup semifinals. Four teams that have never won a World Cup are all vying for the chance to be the newest champion. Yes, these games start early (4 am kickoffs yay!) but after the ouster of Japan, Colombia, France, and the Netherlands, it’s anyone’s game.
Here is what you need to know before the first kickoff as we find out who will book their ticket into their first World Cup final game.
Spain vs Sweden: 8 p.m. local, 4 a.m. ET, 9 a.m. BST
The final game played in New Zealand will see Sweden take on Spain. The Spanish squad had overcome a lot on their path to the World Cup semifinals. Now is going to be their toughest challenge: sending Sweden home.
Spain had a roller coaster path to the semifinal. Jorge Vilda’s team suffered a 4-0 defeat against Japan in the final group-stage game. They’re constantly dealing with the health status of two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas. Now they’re contending with a Swedish team who defeated Japan and the United States on their path to the final. Thankfully, Spain comfortably beat Switzerland in the round-of-16 and advanced to its first-ever semifinal thanks to a 2-1 victory over the Netherlands.
La Roja’s isn’t favored to win but Vilda isn’t deterred. Set pieces are the strongest part of the Spanish squad. Spain’s Aitana Bonmati and defender Laia Codina are both nursing muscular injuries but are expected to be fit enough to play on Tuesday. But one of the biggest decisions of the Spanish squad is this: start or bench the 19-year-old wonder kid Salma Paralluelo. She’s one to watch and thankfully for Spain, her speed is one of Spain’s biggest weapons.
The Swedes are in their second straight semifinal and their fifth overall. They showed why they’re a heavy favorite in their quarterfinal game against Japan. It managed to hold on for a 2-1 victory despite a late Japanese comeback attempt and it was arguably their best performance of the tournament.
They also have the best goalkeeper in the game: Zećira Mušović. She was critical in the USWNT game when she produced a stellar performance, making 11 saves. Since records began in 2011, that was the most saves in a single game at the Women’s World Cup for a goalkeeper who kept a clean sheet, according to Sky Sports. The Swedes also have Amanda Ilestedt, who has scored four goals in five games. Set pieces are her strong suit but expect some goals to come from dead-ball setups too.
Sweden struggles in closing the deal. They lost in the final at the 2003 Women’s World Cup and in the gold medal match at the two most recent Olympic Games. It’s their Waterloo and they know the winner takes it all. They want it to be them. (Please clock the ABBA references).
England vs Australia: 8 p.m. local, 6 a.m. ET, 11 a.m. BST
Another early morning for U.S. viewers on Wednesday for the highly anticipated match between England and host nation Australia. This is the movie set up the 2023 World Cup wanted: the co-hosts against the reigning European champions. For a college basketball comparison: it’s a blue-blood program against the 16th seed.
Everyone is all in on Australia, especially fans in the host country. The front page of Monday’s Australian said it all: “Now for the Poms.” Many Matildas players have done this rivalry before and are familiar with the women opposite them on the pitch. They are the home team and expect walls of green and gold speckled with some white and blue for the Lionesses.
The quarterfinal was the best match for the Matildas. Australia more than held its own against France before eventually prevailing in a dramatic penalty shootout to continue the country’s Cinderella run. Until this year, the quarterfinals were the best that Australia had done in this tournament. From 2007 to 2015 they fell in the QF stage three times in a row.
A key for the Aussies will be their all-time leading goalscorer, Sam Kerr. She is yet to start a game as she continues to recover from injury. The 29-year-old Chelsea player could have timed her return to full fitness perfectly and be in line for a starting berth against the Lionesses, who are all too aware of the quality she possesses.
But England are going to be a difficult squad to beat. Under the helm of Sarina Wiegman, she’s steered a team chock full of talent. Alex Greenwood deserves huge praise for her performances so far so does Jess Carter and Millie Bright. Greenwood has been key for Wiegman’s scheme. She’s had more touches than any other player in the tournament so far, showing how key her contribution can be. Bright will be the key to stopping Australia’s attacking threats even after her knee injury pre-tournament.
The Lionesses are adaptable. Wiegman’s World Cup saw them play a 4-2-3-1 in wins over Haiti and Denmark, before switching to a 3-4-1-2 for their final group-stage match with China. Still without Lauren James, the depth of the roster ensures that missing her isn’t detrimental.
England have only conceded twice to this stage. They’re the favorites to advance to the World Cup Final and could likely win it all. But just like American March Madness, anything can happen during a Cinderella run.
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Mandatory Credit: AP Photo/Francisco Seco