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The Week in Women's Football: The lowdown on UEFA Women's World Cup qualifying

This week, we summarise the final UEFA Women's World Cup Qualifying day in Group Play on September 4, which finalised four more direct 2019 WWC qualifiers and the 4 best second place teams, who will now playoff for one last spot in France. We also reflect on the fact that no Eastern European sides finished first or second in any of the 7 groups.

UEFA Women's World Cup Final Group Matches—September 4

In the last day of Group Play for the UEFA Women's World Cup Qualifiers, 12 months of competition came down to a final 90 minutes for a number of teams vying for a 2019 Women's World Cup direct berth, while 4 of 7 second place teams had to settle for the playoffs for one final UEFA spot, with three others joining the 21 third, fourth and fifth place nations from group play that must watch next summer's premier event from the sidelines. England, Spain and Italy were already through entering the final day, while Germany (2 time champions), Norway (winners in 1995) and Sweden (runners-up in 2003) advanced directly along with World Cup debutants Scotland. For the playoffs, second place sides Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland will play off, starting next month, in two-leg aggregate qualifiers. Austria, Iceland and Wales were the unlucky second place sides who just missed out on one last qualifying chance; all three teams must look ahead to 2023 for another chance to qualify for their first ever Women's World Cup.

In Group 1, England defeated Kazakhstan 6-0 in Pavlador on September 4 with Bethany Mead (Arsenal) scoring a brace, including the first goal of the game in the ninth minute. Houston Dash's Rachel Daly scored her second ever goal for England's full national team (her first coming over two years ago) in her fourth match of the qualifiers, but only her second start. England finished group play with 22 points while idle Wales finished with 17. Russia was a distant third with 13 points and always lagged the top two, with only a 0-0 tie against Wales at home versus three losses in their four matches with the top two U.K.-based sides. Bosnia and Herzegovina along with Kazakhstan finished tied for last on 3 points

In Group 2, Scotland held on for a 2-1 victory over Albania in a difficult away fixture, while Switzerland was held to a 0-0 tie away by Poland in Mielec. Kim Little of Arsenal scored an early goal to settle Scottish nerves (9th minute) but 21–year-old Megi Doci of Vllaznia scored at the end of the first half for Albania.. A tie would have given the group title to Switzerland on goal difference but veteran Jane Ross (now with West Ham United after time with Manchester City, Vittsjo in Sweden and Glasgow City) scored the winner in the 68th minute. Scotland, who defeated Switzerland at home last week, did what they had to do and triumphed in both of their final qualifiers games and are worthy group winners. Switzerland, who debuted themselves at the 2015 World Cup in Canada where they lost to the hosts in Vancouver in the Round of 16, have an uphill battle with the two European Championship finalists—Netherlands and Denmark—among the four semifinalists for the final WWC spot in France. Scotland leaped to the top of the table with their victory, finishing with 21 points, 2 points ahead of Switzerland with 19. Poland was third with 11 points, Albania fourth with 4 and Belarus fifth with 3.

In Group 3, Norway somewhat surprisingly beat the reigning European Champions Netherland 2-1 in Oslo on September 4 to take first place and the automatic qualifier on 21 points. Norway had to overcome the perception that they were done and dusted for the World Cup after a very poor 0-3 group stage run during the 2017 European Championship Finals in the Netherlands. However, after losing 1-0 to the Dutch away last October, they put together five straight wins, including an impressive double of shutouts over the Republic of Ireland in June in 5 days, which effectively ended the Irish's hopes of a top two finish in the group. Norway was up 2-0 by the 6th minute on September 4th through home-based pair Ingrid Syrstad Engen (Trondheims-Orn) and Isabell Herlovsen (LSK), while the Netherlands Vivianne Miedema (Arsenal) scored in the 31st minute. Norway held off the attacks of the Netherlands from that point on, despite being on the short end for shots (8 vs. 20), shots on goals (3 vs. 9) and corners (3 vs. 7). The Netherlands had done enough in their other games to finish second with 19 points. The Republic of Ireland was third on 13, with Northern Ireland fourth on 3 points and Slovakia fifth with 0 points, with only 3 goals for and 23 against in 8 games. Through the playoffs, the Netherlands have a chance to again qualify through the second place playoffs as they did in 2015, when they eventually made the Round of 16 in their debut in Canada, losing to eventual finalists Japan.

In Group 4, Sweden advanced surprisingly somewhat handedly with a 5 point lead, despite their shocking loss 1-0 to Ukraine away on June 12. Sweden advanced after a professional 1-0 road victory over Denmark in Viborg, with Sofia Jakobsson of Montpellier in France netting the crucial goal in the first minute of the second half. Denmark recorded only one point out of six in their last two games—both at home—with the 1-1 tie with Croatia five days earlier, putting them in a deep hole for winning the title. They need to play much better to survive the playoffs. Denmark can feel fortunate that they are in the playoffs at all; if Iceland had defeated the Czech Republic (below) then Denmark would have missed the playoffs. Ukraine should be proud of their 13 point total and third place finish, with Hungary (4 points) and Croatia (3 points) in fourth and fifth place respectively. Denmark is trying for their fifth Women's World Cup, making the quarterfinals in the first two editions in 1991 in China and 1995 in Sweden but won unofficial championship in 1970 and 1971 in Italy and Mexico respectively.

In Group 5, Germany finished first with 21 points with an 8-0 win away at the Faroe Islands on September 4, with Lina Magull (Freiburg), Carolin Simon (Lyon in France) and Alexandra Popp (Wolfsburg) all scoring braces. The same day, Iceland tied the Czech Republic at home (1-1); Iceland was behind most of the game to an early goal in the 12th minute by 20-year-old Slavia Prague midfielder Tereza Szewieczkova—her only goal of the qualifiers—until Rosengard Viggosdottier of Rosengard of Sweden netted the tying goal with 3 minutes left. Iceland was once flying high, having defeated Germany on the road last fall but, like Denmark, had only one point in their last two games—both at home—including a 2-0 defeat to Germany on September 1. Unfortunately, they have no second chance at France unlike the Danes. The Czech Republic finished third with an impressive 14 points, with Slovenia fourth with 6 points and the Faroe Islands bottom with 0 points, with only 1 goal versus 53 against.

In Group 6, Italy had already qualified but Belgium used two crucial wins (1-0 away against Romania on August 31 from a late goal in the 84th minute by forward Ella Van Kerkhoven of Anderlecht and then a crucial 2-1 home victory over Italy on September 4) to capture a second place playoff berth. Belgium's goals against Italy came from a brace by 19-year-oldforward Davinia Vanmechelen of Genk, while Italian forward Cristiana Girelli (formerly with Brescia and now with Juventus for the 2018-19 season) replied from the penalty spot, her seventh of the qualifiers, with all the scoring in the match coming in the first 35 minutes of the match. If not for a 1-1 home tie with Romania in April, Belgium could have captured the group on goal difference (+22 to +15 for Italy). Belgium qualified for the European Championship Finals last year for the first time (finishing 10th) and now have a chance to make the WWC for the first time ever. Italy finished with 21 points, Belgium has 19, while Portugal had 11 points, Romania 5 points and Moldova 1 point.

In Group 7, Spain had already qualified and finished as the only side with a perfect 8-0-0 record (24 points), while all the other group winners had 1 tie—except England which had 1 tie and 1 loss. Austria was second on 16 points, with Finland third on 10, Serbia fourth on 7 and Israel last with 1 point but no goals and 23 against in their 8 matches—the only team among the 40 competing who did not score at all. Austria's 4-1 win over Finland was their second over the Finns—who had early hopes of a top two Group 7 finish—with 22-year-old forward Nicole Billa of Hoffenheim of Germany scoring a brace.

On September 9, the semifinals playoffs were determined with Denmark facing Netherlands in a rematch of the 2017 European Championships Final, which the Netherlands at home. The Netherlands won the playoffs in 2015, defeating Scotland 4-1 on aggregate and Italy 3-2 over two legs. In the other tie, both of which will be played in two legs in early October, Belgium faces Switzerland.

Eastern European update

With the exception of Russia, who have participated in two Women's World Cups, advancing to the quarter finals each time, no Eastern European side has made the World Cup Finals. In 2015, Ukraine made the playoffs for the last UEFA berth but lost 4-3 to Italy on aggregate in the semifinals. In 2011, with only 16 teams in the World Cup and 5 UEFA qualifiers in addition to host Germany, Ukraine won their group but the 8 group winners were drawn against each other in two leg ties with the winners going onto Germany and the Ukraine lost to Norway 3-0. The four teams who lost then played off for one final spot and Ukraine lost to Italy 3-0 on aggregate in the semifinals. In 2019, no Eastern European side finished first or second in their group, but there are positive signs that we may see an Eastern European side besides Russia in the Finals as soon as 2023. Certainly the highlights of the 2019 UEFA Qualifiers included Ukraine's home victory of Sweden earlier this summer, the Czech Republic's tie in Iceland on September 4—when Iceland was heavily favored to win and advance to the World Cup—and Poland holding Switzerland to a scoreless tie at home, also on September 4. All three sides as well as Russia finished third in their groups. In 2017 for the European Championships, Russia qualified but Romania lost 1-1 on aggregate on away goals to Portugal in the playoff for the last spot. Romania fell off this time, finishing fourth with only 5 points in Group 6, with potent goalscorer Laura Rus scoring once in the first 4 games but not playing at all in 2018 for the national side. Romania needs to decide if they will continue to use the 30 year old veteran who is now playing in Italy with Verona, or go with a younger side. Further positives for Eastern European is found on the club side, with consistent performances the last few years by clubs such as Slavia and Sparta Prague, WFC Khakhiv of the Ukraine, ŽFK Spartak of Serbia, BIIK of Kazakhstan and Gintra of Lithuania, albeit the last two heavy importers of global talent. As these club teams continue to cultivate young local talent and push other clubs at home to improve, we will see more talent emerging for the national teams. We hope 2022/2023 sees a breakthrough for Eastern Europe at the European Championships and the Women's World Cup.

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

Tim Grainey
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Tim Grainey

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