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FRANK DELL’APA | WORLD CUP ANALYSIS

For US women, Spain, China would pose different challenges

China goalkeeper Shimeng Peng makes a save in front of Spain's forward Lucia Garcia during Monday’s scoreless tie.
China goalkeeper Shimeng Peng makes a save in front of Spain's forward Lucia Garcia during Monday’s scoreless tie.(Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)

The US might be trying not to look past Thursday’s game against Sweden. But now the reigning Women’s World Cup champions know if they win Group F, their second-round opponent would be the all-out attacking Spaniards, and not the ultra-conservative Chinese.

Spain played a possession game and went for the win against China, mainly because its players do not know any other way to play, to paraphrase former Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta. The Chinese displayed their pragmatic side, the contrast in styles making for a tactical standoff and a 0-0 tie in Le Havre.

The other results were predictable on the final day of play for Groups A and B. France and Germany finished in first place, Norway and Spain second, China clinched advancement, and Nigeria stayed in position to move on as a top third-place team.

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But the inconsistencies and inefficiencies of VAR marred France’s 1-0 victory over Nigeria in Rennes, the result decided on a Wendie Renard re-taken penalty kick nearly seven minutes after the original foul.

In Montpellier, Germany coasted to a 4-0 win over South Africa, giving four players their first WWC start: Klara Buhl, Melanie Leupolz, Lina Magull, Verena Schweers. Coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg has been juggling formations while Dzsenifer Marozsan recovers from a broken toe sustained in the opener against China, and this provided the first chance to experiment without pressure.

Spain was off target in the first half, until Jennifer Hermoso’s 39th-minute header. Peng Shimeng’s near-post save on that shot was the first of several game-saving plays. In the second half, Hermoso’s backheel launched Lucia Garcia on a long run, but Nahikari Garcia fired wide in the 52nd minute. The Spaniards started zeroing in, but Peng dove right to parry Virginia Torrecilla and Patri Guijarro shots from distance, then tipped a Hermoso chip over the bar.

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The Chinese have nearly perfected their defensive style. In their last nine WWC games dating to 2007, more than one goal has been scored in only one match — a 2-2 tie with New Zealand in 2015. China features effective counterattacking players, but the team seldom is in position to set them up. Coach Jia Xiuguan, a former central defender for the China men’s national team, seemed pleased with the result. But China’s tactics might not be as effective without the spectacular play of 21-year-old Peng, who stands 5 feet 11½ inches tall and is rivaling Chile’s Christiane Endler for the tournament’s Golden Glove award.

Honduran referee Melissa Borjas might have made things easier for everyone, but she failed to whistle a textbook penalty as Ngozi Ebere took down Viviane Asseyi in the 73rd minute. Borjas needed two minutes to view the replay, then issue a second caution to Ebere. Renard then sent the penalty kick off the outside of the left post, but after another VAR review, Borjas carded goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie for leaving the goal line early. Finally, Renard finished into the upper right corner in the 79th minute – 6 minutes and 47 seconds after the original non-call.

No teams in this tournament can match the US for offensive depth. France went without regular forwards Kadi Diani and Eugenie Le Sommer, but when they entered in the second half, the dynamic changed. France’s attacking style is sure to produce corner kicks and free kicks, major weapons via Renard, who stands 6-1½.

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Coming Tuesday

Australia vs. Jamaica, Group C, Grenoble — Australia seems to have gained momentum after a slow start. The Aussies lost to Italy (2-1) and fell behind by two goals to Brazil before rallying with a first-half injury time score on the way to a 3-2 win. Jamaica needs to concentrate on defensive organization after being outscored, 8-0, in its first two games.

Brazil vs. Italy, Group C, Valenciennes — Brazil could advance even with a loss, but it will need midfielder Formiga (suspended) and Marta to return from a thigh injury in the elimination phase. The Italians can clinch first place in the group with at least a draw.

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at frankdellapa@gmail.com.