This week we review the 2021 EURO Qualifying Groups after matches in November; qualifying play now takes a break until play resumes next March. We also review the semifinal two-leg ties in African Olympic Games qualifying and have a couple of NWSL off-season news updates.
2021 EURO Qualifying Update
The group winners and the three runners-up with the best record against the sides first, third, fourth and fifth in their sections will join hosts England in the final tournament. The other six runners-up will play off in October 2020 in two leg matches for the remaining three berths in the 16-team finals, which will be held in the summer of 2021.
Group A: Netherlands (holders), Slovenia, Russia, Kosovo, Turkey, Estonia
The Netherlands are well on pace to win the group, with six wins out of six games after their two November victories. The reigning European Champions are 12 points ahead of Slovenia (who have one game in hand), Russia and competition debutants Kosovo (who both have three games in hand). On November 8, the Dutch defeated Turkey 8-0 with a hat trick by Danielle van de Donk (Arsenal of England) within a 17 minute period of the second half, along with braces from Vivianne Miedema (Arsenal of England) and Sherida Spitse (Valerenga of Norway, who had 3 goals in 21 games in the recently completed 2019 season for the second place side and 2020-21 Women's Champions League qualifier). The Netherlands then defeated Slovenia at home 4-1 on November 12, with Spitse scoring two from the penalty spot and Miedema also adding a brace. Kaja Erzen (Roma of Italy) scored the lone reply for the Slovenians. Erzen won consecutive league titles at home with Pomurje in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
Group B: Italy, Denmark, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel, Malta, Georgia
Italy also has full points (18) in 6 games while undefeated Denmark (2017 EURO runners-up) is three points behind on 15 points after 5 wins in 5 games. Bosnia-Herzegovina was defeated by both leaders in October and now sits six points behind Denmark after their 3-1 win in Israel on November 12. Sofija Krajsumovic (17), Dajana Spasojevic (22, of SFK 2000 of Sarajevo, who is at home after a year with Grand Bode in Norway) and Marija Aleksic (22, with reigning champions Ferencvaros of Hungary) scored for Bosnia-Herzegovina, while Mor Efraim (ASA Tel Aviv) tallied in the 3rd minute for the visitors, who had tied Malta away 1-1 five days before. Bosnia-Herzegovina probably has a task too great to finish second against their two western European Championship veteran sides, but a strong third place finish would be a good platform to challenge for a 2023 Women's World Cup berth, as the FIFA tournament expands from 24 to 32 teams. Italy defeated Georgia 6-0 on November 8 and Malta 5-0 on November 12—both at home—with Daniela Sabatino (AC Milan in Italy and who won two Serie A titles with Brescia in 2013-14 and 2015-16) scoring three goals among Italy's 11 across the two games. Denmark thrashed Georgia 14-0 in Viborg with hat tricks by Nadia Nadim (Paris St. Germain in France), Stine Larsen (FC Fleury 91 in France) and Pernille Harder (VfL Wolfsburg in Germany), along with a brace from Nicoline Sorensen (22—in her second season in her second stint at home with Brondby, after playing in Sweden with Linkoping and Rosengard).
Group C: Norway, Wales, Belarus, Northern Ireland, Faroe Islands
Norway sits on top of Group C with 12 points with four wins out of four, including a 6-0 victory against Northern Ireland on November 8 in Stavanger in front of a home qualifying record crowd of 6,709, which saw Caroline Graham Hansen score twice to take her qualifying tally to a competition-leading ten goals, one ahead of the Netherlands' Sherida Spitse and Finland's Linda Sällström. Wales are four points behind after being held to a draw for the second time in the group by Northern Ireland on November 12 in Belfast. Wales seems well placed to finish second in the five team group, with Belarus (3 points in 3 games), Northern Ireland (2 points in 4 games) and Faroe Islands (0 points in 3 games) lagging behind. However, dropping four points to struggling Northern Ireland may ship Wales into the playoffs, where their chances to qualify for the finals for the first time will depend on who they face. They desperately need their emotional leader Jess Fishlock, who tore an ACL this summer while with her NWSL side Reign FC in Washington State; she is expected to be back in action early in the New Year.
Group D: Spain, Czech Republic, Moldova, Poland, Azerbaijan
Poland were the last team to open qualifying on November 12 and, in front of a home record crowd of 7,528 in Lublin, held Spain to a scoreless tie, a surprise as the 2015 and 2019 Women's World Cup finalists had won their previous 22 European qualifiers, including their first two games this fall. Among those Spain wins was a 5-1 victory in the Czech Republic on October 8, with the latter one point off the lead following a 4-0 defeat of Azerbaijan on November 7 as Lucie Vonkova (Ajax of the Netherlands after transferring from Bayer Munich ahead of this season) scored a brace. Poland can catch Spain in March when they host Moldova and visit Azerbaijan. Moldova earned their first points with a 3-1 defeat of Azerbaijan courtesy of two penalty kicks scored by Moldova's goalkeeper Natalia Munteanu (25), who plays at home with Anenii Noi after time in Belarus with Neman and Nadezhda and one year in Russia with Donchanka Azov in 2017. This group still has a lot of games to play as Spain, Czech Republic and Azerbaijan all have played three games, with Moldova having played 2 and Poland just the single match. An Eastern European side should make the playoffs in second from Group D, with the Czech Republic and possibly Poland battling it out to the end for that spot.
Group E: Finland, Scotland, Portugal, Albania, Cyprus
Finland leads the group with 10 points in 4 games, though the 1-1 tie away with Portugal on November 12 could cost them later. Portuguese captain Claudia Neto (Wolfsburg of Germany after winning two Swedish Damallsvenskan titles with Linkopings in 2016 and 2017) scored from the penalty spot in the 32nd minute for the hosts while Linda Sallstrom (Paris FC after time in Sweden with Vittsjo, Linkopings and Djurgardens) countered in the 90th minute. Finland's head coach Anna Signeul's previous team—2019 WWC finalists Scotland, who she coached for 12 years and took to the 2017 EUROs for the first time before leaving for Finland—has 2 wins in 2 games and is expected to win the group. Portugal has 4 points in 2 games, but needs to pull more points off of Finland as well as from Scotland in road games in April 2020 to make the EURO Finals again as they did in 2017 as debutants. Portugal did defeat Finland in the playoffs for a EURO spot in 2017, so this group will be interesting to watch in 2020.
Group F: Sweden, Iceland, Hungary, Slovakia, Latvia
Sweden and Iceland both have a maximum nine points from three games. They have quickly separated from the chasing pack of three Eastern European sides. Behind them, Hungary (4 points) had good results in November with a 0-0 tie away to Slovakia (4 points) on November 8 and a 4-0 win at home over bottom Latvia (0 points) on November 12 in Szombathely, with Zsanett Jakabfi (VfL Wolfsburg—Germany), Dora Zeller (Bayer Leverkusen after playing years with Hoffenheim in Germany) scoring in the first half and Evelin Fenyvesi of Ferencvaros (who won Hungarian Noi NB 1 league titles in 2018-19 and 2015-16 with Ferencvaros) and 18-year-old substitute Sara Pusztai (also Ferencvaros) scoring the second stanza. Struggling Latvia has given up 16 goals while only scoring 2 so far after 4 games.
Iceland is hoping to make its second European Championship after just missing out on their first WWC berth in 2019. Sweden, 2019 WWC bronze medalists in France, should win this group.
Sweden was 3-0 down in a high profile friendly on November 7 during the international games period in Columbus, Ohio against the Americans in their new coach's—Vlatko Andonovski—first game before pulling two goals back through substitute Anna Anvegård (Rosengard of Sweden) with two goals in a four minute spell late in the 3-2 defeat. Anvegard (22) led the Damallsvenskan league in scoring this season with 14 goals, after transferring from Vaxjo during the season, and looks to stay with the 2019-20 Swedish champions for a while, despite her growing reputation and visibility at home.
Group G: France, Austria, Serbia, North Macedonia, Kazakhstan
Austria, another debutant at the 2017 EURO Finals, has four wins out of four games after beating North Macedonia 3-0 away on November 8 and then blasting Kazakhstan 9-0 in the northeastern town of Maria Enzersdorf four days later, with 20-year old Julia Hickelsberger-Fuller (St. Polten of Austria) scoring 4 goals and Nicole Billa (Hoffenheim of Germany) netting 3. France have two wins from two games, while the other four teams have all played 4 games. Amel Majri (Olympique Lyon, for who she has 2 goals in 7 games this season) scored a hat-trick in their 6-0 win against Serbia on November 9 in Bordeaux (Serbia has six points from four games). Neither Austria nor France has conceded a goal; they face off in April and June. Neither side should be tested for a direct qualifying place or playoff berth and both leaders will want to maximize points versus the other three Eastern European nations—Serbia, North Macedonia and Kazakhstan—so that the second place team can advance directly to England without needing to go through a final playoff round.
Group H: Switzerland, Belgium, Romania, Croatia, Lithuania
Belgium and Switzerland are joint top of the group with 12 points after 4 wins, with equal goal aggregates (+15), while Belgium has a slight advantage if a tiebreaker is needed by scoring 17 goals with 2 against while Switzerland has 15 goals and 4 clean sheets. Ramona Bachmann (in her fourth season at Chelsea) had a hat-trick in a 6-0 home win on November 12 in Schaffhausen for the Swiss, while Belgium had two strong wins, defeating Croatia 4-1 away in Zapresic on November 8 and then dispatching Lithuania 6-0 at home in Louvain, with Tine De Caigny (Anderlecht of Belgium) scoring 5 goals, after her one goal against Croatia four days earlier.Romania has played one fewer game (3) and has 3 points, along with Croatia, while Lithuania is at the bottom with 0 points in 5 games, with 1 goal for and 18 against. The top leaders meet in Belgium in April.
Group I: Germany, Republic of Ireland, Greece, Montenegro, Ukraine
Germany are on four wins out of four games but the Republic of Ireland's perfect start of wins was ended by a last-gasp equalizer from Greece in a 1-1 draw in Athens on November 12. Greece beat Montenegro away 4-0 on November 6 and then tied the Irish four days later. Greece is on three points behind the Irish, who they visit on March 6, while both Montenegro and Ukraine (who have faced Germany twice) have 0 points from 3 games. Unless Greece keeps surprising teams in 2020, Germany and the Republic of Ireland should finish 1-2, but the Irish will rue the two dropped points against Greece, which could likely force them into the playoffs.
Amber Barrett (who joined FC Koln in Germany, which was recently promoted to the Frauen Bundesligafor the season) gave the Irish an early lead in Athens with a 13th-minute lob from Katie McCabe's (Arsenal of England) ball, timing her creative shot to beat goalkeeper Anthi Papakonstantinou (PAOK). The Irish looked well on their way to a third consecutive Group I victory, after defeating Montenegro and Ukraine at home earlier in qualifying—the latter the first game in charge for new Dutch head coach Vera Pauw. In the last twenty minutes, Greece applied more pressure with close shots by Veatriki Sarri (Sheffield United in England's second tier Championship, with 3 goals in 7 matches for the current third place team, only 3 points behind leader Aston Villa and 1 point behind London City Lions, who have played 8 games) and Eleni Markow (Apollon Ladies of Cyprus after moving from PAOK ahead of the 2018-19 Championship campaign) while Athanasia Moraitou (at the University of South Alabama this season and a native of Germany who played with Sindelfingen and Cloppenburg in the Germany second division) skied a shot well over the bar with 10 minutes left. Then Anastasia Spyridanidou (Zaragoza of Spain) volleyed home in the 92nd minute past Marie Hourihan in goal to give Greece the tie; she had just come on in the 83rd minute. Hourihan played in the past for Birmingham City, Chelsea, Manchester City and Brighton and Hove Albion before joining Braga of Portugal—the current champions—this past summer.
CAF Olympic Games Qualifying Update
Cameroon and Zambia will face off on January 12 in Cameroon with the return in Zambia on January 21 to determine the lone automatic Olympic Game qualifying spot for Africa, with the second place side advancing to a Continental play-in with CONMEBOL's Chile.
Zambia went to Kenya on November 8 and scored two crucial away goals in a 2-2 deadlock, before winning on the single goal on November 11 at home, to advance 3-2 on aggregate.
Cameroon journeyed to Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire on November 9 and returned home with a 0-0 result, and then won the second leg in Yaoundé 2-1 to take the tie on the same aggregate score. Ajara Nchout (Valerenga IF of Norway) set up Charlene Meyong (Louves Minproff in Cameroon) for the first goal in the second leg for the hosts in the 28th minute. However, the Ivorians attacked the Cameroon defense but were denied twice before halftime by Cameroon goalkeeper Ange Bawou (19), who was not on the Women's World Cup side this summer in France but played for her country at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in Jordan in 2016. Rebecca Amon Elloh (a 2015 WWC player who is now with Pyrgos Limassol in Cyprus after time with Barcelona in Cyprus and Gintra University in Lithuania) equalized for the Ivorians two minutes into the second half. The second half was a tense affair until Cameroon won a penalty and Nchout was successful from the spot in the 84th minute, powering head coach Alain Djuemba's side through to the final round of the qualifying series.
Cote d'Ivoire should be proud of their campaign, having eliminated Mali and African champions Nigeria in the second and third qualifying stage earlier this year. One hopes that if Cameroon does advance to the Olympic Games Finals, that Djuemba controls his squad much better than he did in the Round of 16 Women's World Cup game against England last summer, when his team was petulant throughout the game and provided reckless displays of defense that was an embarrassment to the sport and brought a strong rebuke from English women's national team manager Phil Neville. Djuemba seemed quite oblivious to the criticism after the game. Cameroon had advanced to the knockout stage after winning won of the most dreadful games that I have watched, over New Zealand. Cameroon has the talent and after a vibrant 2015 World Cup debut, has to show a better attitude if they make the 2020 Olympics.
In the other tie, Zambia's Copper Queens picked two crucial away goals as they held Kenya's Harambee Starlets to a 2-2 draw in the first leg of their fourth round Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games qualifier at the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi on November 8. Zambia's Grace Chanda (Zesco United) scored 13 minutes in when she tapped the ball into an empty net after Kenya's keeper Anette Kundu missed Zambian Zulu Misozi's (BIIK-Kazygurt of Kazakhstan) cross from the left. Zambian defender Marthe Tembo (Green Buffalos) inadvertently put the ball through her own net to tie up the match in the 30th minute. In the second half, Rachel Kundananji (BIIK-Kazygurt in Kazakhstan) drew the Zambians level barely a minute after Kenya's Corazone Aquino (who had a trial a year ago in Sweden with champions Rosengard) had scored Kenya's second goal when Zambian keeper Hazel Nali (Green Buffalos) spilled a shot from Elizabeth Wambui.
The Copper Queens moved to the final round of the African Olympic Games women's football qualifiers by defeating Kenya 1-0 at Nkoloma Stadium in Lusaka on November 11 (3-2 on aggregate). Zambia striker Rachel Kundananji (BIIK-Kazygurt of Kazakhstan) missed a 17th minute penalty, after captain Barbara Banda(Logrono of Spain) was fouled by Ruth Ingosi (Eldoret Falcons in Kenya) in the penalty box. However 18-year-old Lushomo Mweemba (Nkwazi of Zambia) was the hero in the 57th minute when she scored the only goal to ensure that the Copper Queens advanced to the continental final. In the 87th minute, Kenya's Ingosi was sent-off in the 87th minute for a second booking after her earlier yellow card that led to the first half penalty, which put Kenya further in a hole that they never recovered from.
Last year, Zambia's only had two players abroad: Rachael Kundananji (19)—who joined Kazakhstan powerhouse BIIK and helped her club win the Kazakhstani Women's League with 3 goals in 5 games along with 8 assists—and Barbra Banda (19), who signed with Logrono in Spain. Kundananji rose to prominence during the 2018 Women's Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana where she scored 3 goals in 3 games. She scored 21 goals in 18 games for her former club, Indeni Roses in 2018. Barbra Banda scored 8 goals in 17 games last season with her Spanish club, with 4 goals in 8 games this season. We would expect that more clubs and agents will be watching the Zambian league to uncover more players after their success this year. This season, BIIK added Misozi Zulu (24) from the National Assembly club in Zambia.
NWSL Off-season updates
Dagny Brynjarsdottir returns to Iceland
The Portland Thorns have released Iceland's international midfielder Dagny Brynjarsdottir from her contract as she plans to return home. She had 1 goal in 21 games in 2019 and 6 goals and 2 assists in 49 regular season games across three seasons, winning the NWSL Shield (Regular Season Championship in 2016) and the NWSL Championship in 2017. She took off the 2018 season for maternity leave.
Sky Blue FC will play all of their 2020 Season Home Games at Red Bull Arena outside New York City
In a monumental announcement for Sky Blue FC, the club announced on November 18 that they will play all of their 2020 season games at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, which is easily reachable by road or train from New York City. This move is key to putting Sky Blue closer to a major market; they have played since they started in WPS in 2009 at Yurcak Field Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey; a venue that put them equally inaccessible between New York City and Philadelphia. The club played two matches at Red Bull Arena after the WWC this season, drawing 8,314 for a 1-1 draw with Orlando on September 29 and setting a club record when 9,415 saw them tie Reign FC by the same score on August 18.
Tammy Murphy of the Sky Blue ownership group said: "We're thrilled to partner with the Red Bulls to expand support for professional women's soccer. Last season demonstrated that we are ready to take our players and fans to the next level. This move provides our professional athletes with the top-notch facilities they deserve and gives our growing fan base increased access via public transit and an enhanced game day experience."
Red Bull Arena is considered a benchmark for soccer-specific stadiums in North America. The venue, entering its 11th season in 2020, has hosted numerous international events, including the U.S. Men's and Women's National Teams, an MLS All-Star Game against Manchester United, and high-profile clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester City, Club America, Real Madrid, and other games.
Sky Blue played better last season than its 8th place finish reflects but needs to step up now on all fronts now, stabilizing its circular coaching carousel while continuing to boost the playing staff as over the past few seasons many veterans and college draft choices have refused to stay with or join the club. That should change now, but the club ownership and management needs to realize that they cannot hide any longer now that they will be firmly in the New York area sports scene with extensive media scrutiny. They can no longer hope to hide their poor game day setup, poor treatment of players on the facility and housing side and horrible marketing efforts, sneaking under the radar with league players and the NWSL media until the national media latched on to the train wreck that was Sky Blue FC late in the 2018 season. The recently completed 2019 season showed that those days should be behind them. The Red Bull Arena move is tremendous for the club, but all past remnants of an operation that was definitely fourth class has to be over, or the exposure could potentially doom not only the team but have negative ramifications on the league as well. Sky Blue FC now has an opportunity to truly be an asset to the league and not hold it back. We look forward to a brighter future for the club that won the first WPS Championship in 2009.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey