As we step boldly into Day 28 of Edge of the Crowd's electrifying 70-day countdown to the FIFA Women’s World Cup, anticipation is at a fever pitch.
Now, it's time to dive headlong into the gritty, thrilling details of each group. Prepare to be enchanted by tactful manoeuvres and enchanted by top-tier athletes. Each group promises a dramatic blend of the supreme contenders and the underdogs with nothing to lose.
From group to group, we're dissecting the exciting prospects, starting with Group B and Group E.
With one of the host nations, the reigning Olympic champion, two of the greatest strikers in the game's history and two potentially dangerous underdogs, Group B will be one of the most keenly watched in the tournament.
All of the pressure will be on Australia, and the opening game against The Republic of Ireland is set to break attendance records. The Matildas have a history of performing at their best with their back against the wall and digging out results against the odds. On this occasion, they will go in as favourites against an opponent with all the tools and experience to cause an upset.
As Australia’s manager, Tony Gustavsson has referenced and drawn on the famed “Never Say Die” mantra. Although at times, it has been apparent, long-time watchers of the national team are aware that he has worked hard to make this a catch cry more than something to depend on from the start.
Australia has quickly evolved into an organised, flexible and patient side that can play a variety of game styles. That "Never Say Die" attitude is still vital to their identity, but in a practical sense, is now a plan C or D when. It gives a sense of belief, it is not their driving force.
This is a good thing, as Canada and The Republic of Ireland will be difficult to break down and defend against. They will likely need to score twice to beat The Republic of Ireland. A draw in the first game will not be a disaster, but they cannot afford a loss in the opening fixture.
The pressure of a home World Cup will only build, and they need to use that to harness momentum. Ireland probably cannot beat Canada, but they can defeat The Matildas on a big occasion, and this game will be essential for both teams.
Canada is expected to defeat Nigeria in the opening game. Bev Priestman’s team is a match for most sides at their best and Nigeria is relatively inexperienced at the international level.
In the second week, Australia should defeat Nigeria and a draw between Canada and Ireland is not impossible.
Five points could be enough to get out of this group, and if all goes as predicted, much will rest on the final match between Canada and Australia in Melbourne.
Australia is expecting to top this group, and if the side win the first two games, it'll have qualified before the final match. But this encounter looms as an early knockout game.
PREDICTED GROUP B STANDINGS
The Republic of Ireland 4pts
Although some have tried to find a “group of death” in this World Cup, an expanded tournament makes that an inaccurate description for most groups. However, Group E, featuring the 2019 Champions USA, the star-studded (if injury-depleted) Netherlands, and an enigmatic Portugal is one of the more interesting ones.
Vietnam is a welcome addition to the tournament but will be far less resourced and experienced than the other three nations. Vietnam will struggle to get a point but will be better off for the experience. The only shame about Vietnam's participation in this group is that it will be based in New Zealand, and would have enjoyed near-home levels of support in some Melbourne cities.
It is time to make a bold prediction. The USA will win all three games. Not only do the Americans have the class and skill to beat each team, but they have the depth to rest players without any change in performance. It will be a tough task for Vietnam to face the USA first as the defending champions may be out to make an early statement as the team did against Thailand in 2019.
Portugal can get a point off The Netherlands in its opening game. We saw at the Euro that The Netherlands was willing to rush a visibly unfit Vivienne Miedema into the lineup. It remains to be seen how effective this still skillful Dutch side will be without the Arsenal superstar. However, in Lieke Martens and Jackie Groenen, The Netherlands still have creativity and firepower.
Matchday two will see the main event of this group, the replay of the 2019 World Cup Final. The USA will have no fear of The Netherlands, but the Dutch may be out for revenge against the side that denied it the trophy four years ago.
The Netherlands can test the Americans, but this should be a close win to the USA, 2-1.
This is where the group becomes unpredictable. Portugal could go into the final match against the USA with four points after a win and a draw. If that happens, the second spot will come down to goal difference.
It pains to say it because nobody wants to see thrashings, but the standings of this group could depend on who takes the most advantage when playing an inexperienced Vietnam.
In a weird way, that makes the Vietnamese one of the more important sides in the early stages of this tournament. Vietnam is long odds of getting out of the group, but a strong performance against Portugal or The Netherlands could see the side deciding another's fate.
The Dutch have more scoring power, so on goal difference, they are likely to go through behind the Americans.
PREDICTED GROUP E STANDINGS
The Netherlands 4pts