While You Were (Probably) Sleeping, Group A Got Real Hectic
3:18 PM EDT on July 25, 2023
For the North American viewer, one of the drawbacks of the World Cup going on mostly in the middle of the night is that you have to make informed decisions about what games are worth staying up for and ruining your next day over. There's some obvious ones: The Sweden-Italy and Brazil-France doubleheader on Saturday morning is worth your exhaustion, for example. When looking at the second round of Group A matches, though, I didn't see much reason to stay up.
After all, New Zealand had won its first match with such vigor against Norway that it would have been shocking to see anything but that happen in the co-hosts' match against the Philippines, 2-0 losers to Switzerland in their first game. And, frankly, neither Switzerland nor Norway are particularly thrilling sides, at least not enough to consider a 4 a.m. alarm here on the East Coast. My plan was to watch the Colombia-South Korea match and then go to bed, catching both of the overnight games on recording in the morning.
Well, I sure regret that now! In the wee hours of the night here, the Philippines pulled off a historic win, the first in its World Cup history, shocking New Zealand 1-0 to create a three-way tie for first with three points across those two sides and Switzerland. That tie didn't last long, thanks to yet another awkward and ineffective Norwegian performance in the second game, and so Switzerland now stands tall with four points at the top of Group A. This sequence of events has created a perfectly chaotic table after two matchdays, and now sets up a wild final matchday where any of the four teams, in pretty much any combination save for Norway-Philippines, could qualify to the knockout round. Let's take a look at how each team got here, and what they need from the final match to make the promised land of the round of 16.
Let's start with the current group leaders, because the Swiss have mostly done what they needed to do. First up, they beat the Philippines by a pretty comfortable 2-0 margin in the opener, thanks to a Ramona Bachmann penalty and a tally from Seraina Séverin Piubel.
While that was always going to be something of a warm-up, La Nati also took care of business against supposed group front-runners Norway on Tuesday. Though the Scandinavians were likely the better team, at least statistically, Switzerland held pretty firm, thanks to the heroics of goalie Gaëlle Thalmann, who had some stunning saves:
So, Switzerland stands in the best position in the group heading into the final matchday. A win against New Zealand guarantees a spot in the knockout round, and as the group winners to boot. Even a draw against the Football Ferns does the trick, as Switzerland would have five points, while only the Philippines could finish with six in that scenario. A loss against New Zealand, though, opens up a scenario for the Swiss to not make it; if the Philippines wins their match against Norway, or if Norway wins by enough to trump Switzerland on goal difference, then the Swiss would be out. It's unlikely, given how each team has played so far, but thanks to the draw against Norway, Switzerland isn't out of the woods just yet.
New Zealand looked every bit the real deal of a host in the World Cup's opening match against Norway. Despite being an underdog on paper, the Ferns were the better team even without looking at the scoreboard. About that scoreboard, though, thanks to Hannah Wilkinson, New Zealand took its first win in World Cup history in style, bodying the Norwegian defense and holding fast as the flurry of desperation attacks began in earnest in the final ten minutes.
Thanks to that win, against the toughest opponent on paper, New Zealand had a great opportunity to clinch a spot in the knockout round by simply beating the minnows of the Philippines. Well, that was the plan anyway.
Sarina Bolden's 24th-minute goal, the first for the Philippines in a World Cup, and the subsequent failure to equalize from New Zealand completely changed the makeup of Group A. Now, instead of cruising to six points, New Zealand will have to try to get at least a point from the Swiss, but more likely will have to chase a win, as a draw puts the side at the mercy of the other result. If the Philippines wins in that case, then New Zealand is out. Ditto if Norway wins by large enough amount (goal difference trumps head-to-head here, so New Zealand's win over Norway would not keep them safe). Also, it might go without saying, but a loss for New Zealand also knocks it out. So, look for the Kiwis to go hard for a win against Switzerland to not leave anything up to chance. For the hosts' sake, let's hope that goes better than it did against ...
... the Philippines, who became the underdog story of the tournament with Bolden's goal. Coming into the World Cup, it would not have shocked anyone if the Philippines debuted in the tournament with no goals and no points. So much for that!
Las Filipinas definitely won the way underdogs are wont to do in international tournaments: they converted their one golden chance and then defended against a flurry of possession from the opposition. Still, though, the three points for the Philippines already makes this a massive success for the country's young soccer system. Is it greedy to imagine a world where the Philippines shocks the group again and advances into the knockouts? Maybe, but it's a pretty straightforward task here, if not an easy one: The Philippines must either beat Norway, or draw and hope New Zealand loses. That'll take some doing, especially since Norway is, in theory at least, the strongest team here (I've said this a few times on purpose, but I'll get to that in a second). Still, though, beating the hosts has to give the Philippines a boost heading into the final matchday, where anything truly can happen.
Norway has been a disaster, and for the second international tournament in a row. After last summer's Euro debacle, in which Norway beat Northern Ireland before getting obliterated 8-0 by England and then losing 1-0 to Austria to miss out on the knockout rounds, this World Cup was supposed to be one of redemption. Ada Hegerberg was fully back in the mix, Caroline Graham Hansen is at the peak of her powers, and the team has a world-class midfield trio. Everything looked set for a run into the knockouts and, really, further, all up until when Wilkinson dunked on the Norwegians in the opener.
Well, fine. Norway tends to play like less than the sum of its very talented parts, but you could forgive them for coming out listless against the hosts in the opening match of the tournament. Less excusable is what happened against Switzerland, even with some unfortunate circumstances in the way. Reports came out on Monday that Graham Hansen would not start against Switzerland, which was wild at the time, given that the Barcelona winger was Norway's only dangerous player against New Zealand. It came out later that she had felt ill after the opener and was likely not well suited to 90 minutes. Ok, fine. That happens.
Less normal is the fact that Hegerberg was all set to lead the line against the Swiss, even being named in the starting lineup, before being pulled moments before kickoff due to a groin injury picked up in the final moments of pre-match training. That meant that Norway had to line up without its two best players in a game it really needed to win. And so, well, it didn't win. Switzerland did enough on defense, as mentioned above, and Norway continued to be listless in its attack, though less so once Graham Hansen came on in the second half.
Now, Norway has the trickiest task in the group, and the one least in its control. First off, it has to beat the Philippines, full stop. A draw, and Norway's tournament is over. A win might still result in an exit, though: If New Zealand wins and Norway doesn't make up the goal difference gap between it and Switzerland (currently, -1 to the Swiss's +2), then Norway is out. It's in Norway's best interest to win while simultaneously rooting for a Swiss win; that would be the cleanest way for the Norwegians to qualify second in the group. Still, though, no one will be watching the other Group A game more nervously than Norwegian fans, whose squad lost control of its own destiny with two disappointing performances to start this World Cup. The good news is that nothing is over just yet for any of the four teams here, which should lead to an incredible finish on Sunday.