Tokyo 2020 preview: Olympic competition too close to call

With limited fixtures over the past 18 months and most teams’ form an unknown quantity, the Olympic women’s football tournament is wide open and all medals are up for grabs. Jessy Parker Humphreys explores each team’s chances.

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With the Olympic football tournament kicking off on Wednesday, two days prior to the opening ceremony, it is hard to ascertain what the outcome might be. The disruption caused by COVID-19 has left many women’s national sides underprepared, and with teams playing so few games, there is little to judge them on. That has not stopped the Americans being typically confident, but it remains to be seen whether hubristically so.

The USA are probably the best prepared, having contested twelve games since the start of the calendar year. The core of the squad that won the 2019 World Cup remains, although the ages of Megan Rapinoe (36), Carli Lloyd (39), Tobin Heath (33), Christen Press (32), and Alex Morgan (32) makes you wonder whether this might be the last tournament where we see this particular iteration of the USA. 21-year-old Catarina Macario, who plays for Lyon, is their ‘one to watch’, whilst the opportunity for Kristie Mewis to play at a senior tournament with her sister Sam for the first time is a heart-warming touch.

Team GB meanwhile only played their first game together on Wednesday, beating New Zealand 3-0 in a ‘behind closed doors’ friendly. Given their previous meeting was a drab 1-0 loss ahead of the 2019 World Cup, it will have been a confidence boost for a squad made up mostly of England players who have had a decidedly underwhelming past couple of years. Team GB are in a curious position of being both under pressure and not.

After all, with England having made the semi-finals of the past three international tournaments, on top of having the talented additions of Kim Little, Caroline Weir, and Sophie Ingle, there is no reason to think that they should not be capable of getting a medal. Yet at the same time, this is a side in flux: managed by Hege Riise only until Sarina Wiegman can take over in September. With Team GB in what is on paper the most evenly balanced group, their tournament feels like it could go in any direction.

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Sweden and the Netherlands make up the rest of the European contingent at the Olympics, selected thanks to their positioning as the three European teams who progressed the furthest at the 2019 World Cup. An impressive 1-1 draw with the USA back in April showed that Sweden have the ability to frustrate one of the most potent attacks in women’s football. Most of the squad have already tasted success at the Olympics following their silver medal in 2016, which involved them knocking out the USA on penalties. They face them again in their first match, which should be one of the games of the tournament.

As 2017 Euro winners and 2019 World Cup runners up, on paper, the Netherlands are a favourite as Sarina Wiegman looks to end her time as manager on a high. Yet they have had a mixed lead-up to the tournament, including a 3-3 draw with Canada and losses to up-and-coming European sides, Spain and Italy. We should remember, though, that these have been more testing warm-up games than most of the other teams in the competition, and a favourable group could see them pick up a lot of confidence early on. It is never wise to write off a side with a striker as good as Vivianne Miedema.

The 3-3 draw between the Netherlands and Canada was another positive sign for the side managed by former England assistant Bev Priestman. Combined with a 2-0 win against her old side earlier in the year and a tight 1-0 loss to the USA which Canada should have won, they have the potential to be the dark horses of this tournament. PSG fullback Ashley Lawrence has been one of the best in Europe this season, whilst Evelyn Viens impressed on loan at Paris FC. There is plenty of quality in this Canada side and Priestman looks well placed to marshal it in Tokyo.

Japan will be hoping to become only the second host nation to medal in women’s football history, following the USA’s gold medal win at Atlanta 1996. Having won the 2018 under-20 World Cup, and with the launch of a professional league, Japanese women’s football is going from strength to strength. They will hope to beat Chile to at least qualify to the knockouts as a third placed side, but they certainly have the capacity to surprise both Canada and Team GB.

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The nature of Olympic qualifying means there are also a number of underdogs in the competition. Chile have the benefit of having the best goalkeeper in the world in the form of Christiane Endler, whilst Zambia are bringing a very young team, including 21-year-old Barbara Branda, who was the Chinese league’s top scorer last season. New Zealand have only played once together in the past 18 months so are likely to look rusty.

The other sides making up the competition include Australia who have struggled defensively under new manager Tony Gustavsson, Brazil who have not kicked on as might have been expected under former Swedish manager Pia Sundhage, and China. China reached the competition thanks to a 4-3 double-legged victory over South Korea, and will fancy themselves to at least beat Zambia in their group.

Without many recent fixtures, it is hard to figure out who might genuinely be a medal contender in this competition. There are plenty of sides with the quality to cause each other problems, and even the USA’s recent performances suggest they aren’t infallible. Excitingly, this makes the tournament feel like it is free for anyone to grab it by the scruff of the neck. After eighteen months of stop-start international football due to COVID-19, here is an opportunity for sides to really make a statement.

Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph

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