Women’s World Cup Daily: Semifinal preview, predictions

The 2023 Women’s World Cup is in full swing, and these daily files give you the latest reporting from around the tournament as well as betting lines, what-to-watch-for information and best reads. Check in with ESPN throughout the tournament as we bring you the latest from Australia and New Zealand.

After 32 teams began their 2023 Women’s World Cup campaigns, we’re now down to four, with many of the favourites already sent home, including the United States, Canada, Brazil and Germany.

With Japan, Colombia, France and Netherlands now out after the quarterfinals, there will be a new Women’s World Cup champion crowned. England face co-hosts Australia, while Sweden battle Spain for the right to be called the best women’s international team on the planet.

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ESPN’s writers on the ground in Australia and New Zealand take us through the two semifinal fixtures.

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Spain have overcome a lot on their path to the World Cup semifinals, but now is perhaps their biggest challenge: beating Sweden for the first time in their history.

The squad mutiny from last October, when 15 players wrote to the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) demanding changes behind the scenes and within the coaching setup, has somehow been put in the rearview mirror at this World Cup, but Jorge Vilda’s team also suffered a 4-0 defeat against Japan in the group stage. And the ongoing battle for fitness of Spain’s leading player, two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas, is another issue that Vilda has had to deal with.

While Spain have gotten this far despite their problems, Vilda knows Sweden poses a significant test for his players.

“Yes, we have never beaten Sweden,” Vilda said. “But it is an additional motivation and we have this opportunity now. I am convinced that we can look them in the face and, if we present a good version of ourselves, win the game. We are Spain, everyone knows how we play, and we will stick to the script. But it has to be the best version of Spain for us to win.”

Sweden, having eliminated Japan and the U.S. to reach the semis, go into the clash at Eden Park as the favourites to reach the final. Peter Gerhardsson’s team have made it this far by capitalising on their ability on set pieces, and the coach makes no apology about the direct style of his side.

“One of our strengths are the set pieces in the offense and defence,” he said. “We practice a lot. It’s part of the game and you can work a lot on structure at set pieces. We are not scoring all goals directly from set pieces. It is second balls, too. When old fruit in trees are falling down, you have to pick them up. That’s what we did in the last game — it’s falling fruit.”

Ilestedt has scored four goals in five games for Sweden, despite playing in central defence. Only Japan’s Hinata Miyazawa has scored more goals than Ilestedt, who could win the Golden Boot as well as the trophy. All of Ilestedt’s goals have come from set pieces, while eight out of Sweden’s 11 goals at the tournament have followed dead-ball setups. Her performance so far has even surprised some of her teammates. “I don’t think so many of us were expecting her to be top scorer in our team,” forward Fridolina Rolf√∂ said. “But she’s an amazing player, especially with her head, and I am so happy for her.”

At 19, Paralluelo is on course to be the outstanding young player of the tournament. The Barcelona winger showcased her incredible ability with a stunning solo goal to win Spain’s quarterfinal match against the Netherlands. A former 400-metre runner who competed for Spain at the 2019 European Athletics Indoor Championships, Paralluelo’s pace is one of Spain’s biggest weapons. Having started on the bench against the Dutch, the big question is whether she will play from the start against Sweden. — Mark Ogden

SYDNEY — The front page of Monday’s Australian Daily Telegraph (renamed the “Daily Tillygraph” in honour of the Matildas) said it all: “Now for the Poms.”

This is the latest chapter of a cross-sport Australia-England rivalry, played at a sold-out Stadium Australia. It’s box office. Many of the players know each other, as they play for the same clubs. They’ve crossed paths for years, but never like this. This is the semifinal the 2023 World Cup wanted: the co-hosts against the reigning European champions, all with years of sporting hostility behind them.

Tony Gustavsson’s Matildas will have the benefit of a wall of green and gold inside the stadium. The boisterous home fans will be there roaring on a team that has gripped a nation, and they’re hoping for another huge victory in their first World Cup semifinal.

England’s Lionesses are unbeaten at this World Cup, suffering just one defeat in all since Sarina Wiegman took over as coach in 2021. That loss came against Australia in April, a 2-0 defeat in London, and this is a new-look team with star players injured or retired, and young phenom Lauren James suspended. But England have showed their adaptability in this World Cup as they played a 4-2-3-1 in wins over Haiti and Denmark, before switching to a 3-4-1-2 for their final group-stage match with China, a game they won 6-1.

England’s knockout stage has been tough. But this is the big one, and it’s their sternest test yet.

England are a team packed with stars and have the depth to cope with some absentees, but Bright is indispensable. The England captain has been a rock at the back. She came into the tournament having just recovered from a knee injury but has been the pillar of the back three, heading away anything that has come her way. Bright will be the key to stopping Australia’s attacking threats.

Foord has had a wonderful tournament so far. The Arsenal forward has been lethal, switching between a role at the front in the opening couple of matches to out wide in the knockout stage. But it’s not just her ability to turn defences inside out which makes her so valuable — it’s also her defensive qualities that make her a world-class player as she tracks back to help her teammates. Foord will be targeting that gap between Lucy Bronze and Jess Carter on England’s right side, and both will be on red alert to stop the Aussie star. — Tom Hamilton

Sophie Lawson: Sweden and Australia for me. Sweden have experience at this level; Spain do not. If Sweden can dominate the midfield as they did against Japan, or sit back and let Spain have the ball as they did against the U.S., I think they have the nous to get through 2-1.

As for the Matildas, they’ve been growing into this tournament whereas England are a lot more stop-start. Factor in the swell of home support and all signs point to gold vs. gold, Swedish manager vs. Swedish manager in the final. The score? 2-0.

Tom Hamilton: I think it’ll end up being a Sweden vs. England final. The strength of Sweden’s set pieces and defensive stability will see them through 2-1 against Spain, but expect Vilda’s team to dominate possession and territory.

Australia and England can be decided on the flip of a coin, but the Lionesses’ experience at this stage — their third World Cup semifinal in a row — and defensive stability will see them through 1-0, despite the wave of passionate home support.

Mark Ogden: I’m going for a sea of yellow at Stadium Australia in the final on Sunday. Sweden have too much power and belief against a Spain team that have reached the semis for the first time. 2-0.

England have a better all-round team than Australia. The Matildas have the outstanding talents of Sam Kerr and Mary Fowler, as well as the incredible home support which will tilt Wednesday’s semi in their favour. 2-1.

Joey Lynch: Sweden and England to win. Having shown the weight that ruthless pragmatism and strength can have against one technically superior opponent, Sweden should have enough to step up and do similar to Spain and win 2-0.

Where England get the goals they’ll need is a massive question, but if they can clamp down on Australia’s transition and Jess Carter and Lucy Bronze do similar to Foord, I can’t see the Matildas getting through their defence. 1-0 to England.

Caitlin Murray: Sweden vs. Australia in the final. Sweden beat my previous winner pick (Japan), so they’ve earned the nod. Sweden also beat the team I came here to cover (the U.S.), so I shifted my coverage accordingly and found that Sweden’s team has remarkably similar vibes to the 2019 USWNT that won it all four years ago. They seem like the kind of team that can stop anyone, even Spain, so I predict 1-0 Sweden.

Meanwhile, this is wishful thinking, but I’d love to see Australia make it through as a host country and underdog. The players are stepping up, and Gustavsson is allowing them to be their best, so I think it’s possible. England can and will put up a fight, so I predict the Matildas going through 2-1.

Marissa Lordanic: Sweden vs. Australia as well. Both of these semifinals will be tight contests, but I expect Sweden to continue their upward trajectory, coupled with a healthy smattering of luck, and their experience at this stage of major tournaments. Sweden goalkeeper Zecira Musovic will be key again for a 1-0 win.

Australia will top England 2-1, namely because their attack’s potency should trump England’s defensive resoluteness.

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — As the Northern Explorer train came to a halt at Auckland Strand station after its 11-hour journey up the North Island from Wellington on Sunday, the train manager had a message for the passengers before disembarking.

The train was busier than usual — winter is the quiet season on the route through New Zealand’s stunning volcanic landscape — and she will have noted the many Americans on board by their accents and sportswear bearing the crests of the Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Falcons and New York Yankees, not to mention several in Team USA gear.

FIFA data shows that from the 90,000 tickets bought by U.S. residents, many paid to attend the Wellington quarterfinal, expecting the USWNT to have played in that tie rather than suffer a shocking round-of-16 elimination.

Many of those on the train back to Auckland headed north originally expecting to watch the USWNT in Tuesday’s semifinal in the city. But with the defending champions no longer in the competition, the American fans have time on their hands to explore New Zealand’s biggest sights — and the train manager made sure to tell her passengers what really matters in the country.

“If there’s one thing I can recommend you all to do in Auckland, it is the All Blacks Experience [guided tour],” the train manager said. “I know most of you are here for the soccer, but we’re pretty big on rugby here, and it is a definite must for anyone who is visiting Auckland.”

New Zealand has embraced the Women’s World Cup as co-host, but make no mistake, while locals will chat about the football, they move on to rugby as quickly as possible.

The train manager was almost speaking for the nation: “Enjoy the football, but rugby is the real deal here.” — Mark Ogden

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Sweden coach Peter Gerhardsson has been one of the characters of this World Cup, and he admitted that he will adopt an unusual approach to preparing for Tuesday’s semifinal against Spain.

After “going the gym and for a walk,” Gerhardsson plans to read a book: “Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World,” by German author Hartmut Rosa.

“I’m glad you asked me this,” Gerhardsson said in his prematch news conference. “It’s a book about sociology and about not knowing what is coming. If you as a human being know everything, it’s not exciting. That’s why football is so exciting — you never know what is going to happen.”

Gerhardsson then revealed that his mother has been buying copies of newspapers in Sweden every day during the tournament for his scrapbook.

“She is very interested in football,” he said. “She buys all the newspapers so I can read everything when I get back and put them in the scrapbook. It’s costly to pay her back, I can tell you! But it’s the same in every tournament.” — Mark Ogden

– Australia Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Monday backed calls for a public holiday if the Matildas win the Women’s World Cup. “I’ve said that the state and territory leaders should consider it and I know that it’s received a pretty warm reception in most quarters,” Albanese said in a radio interview with state broadcaster ABC when asked if calls for a public holiday were justified. “This is something much more than just a sporting event. This is an inspiration to young girls in particular, but also young boys.”

– While many fans will view this match through the lens of the history of the two nations, and in particular their battles in other sports, the Matildas seem genuinely unfazed by any talk of rivalry with England. “I think you see it a lot in the men’s competition, especially in cricket and rugby,” Matildas goalkeeper Lydia Williams told the media when asked about England. “But for us, we’ve had so many rivalries with other countries that we played against. We’ve played against Brazil at every other World Cup, you could say that about America, you could say that about so many countries. So really for us, it’s just another game. I think for us, Australians are, I don’t want to say unbothered, but we want to go out there and do the job and that’s to play. All the extra stuff of rivalries, it doesn’t really come about.”

– The hurt of England’s 2-1 defeat to the U.S. at the semifinal stage in the 2019 World Cup has stayed with captain Millie Bright. “I think as much as you look forward — and for us our mentality is always looking forward — when you play in tournaments, those moments always stay there and you always want to correct them,” Bright said. “For us, the game is in a very different place and as a team we’re in a very different place. We look forward now, it’s a new challenge and new opportunity. You definitely learn from it, but the game’s in such a different place that a lot has changed since then. Everything is different — the crowd, the atmosphere, the teams, the quality of the tournament. Everything is at a new level, so as much as you still carry some of that with you at this point, you’ve already learned a lot, so for me it’s always about looking forwards.”

How USA fans watched the World Cup after USWNT exit
Many USWNT fans were unexpectedly left without a team to root for while in New Zealand and Australia for the Women’s World Cup. Here’s how they coped.

Have the stars aligned for Sweden at the Women’s World Cup?
Two years ago, it seemed like Sweden had missed their big chance at securing some silverware. Now, the 2023 Women’s World Cup could be theirs for the taking.

The Matildas’ moment: Each penalty had its own story to tell
Nothing summed up Australia’s historic win over France quite like the shootout itself. Penalties don’t often tell the story of a match, but this time they did.

SYDNEY, Australia — The whole country of Australia was enraptured in the Matildas’ dramatic quarterfinal clash with France on Saturday, and former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce was no different. The only problem for the honourable member for New England was that he wasn’t watching the right encounter with Les Bleues.

Joyce admitted on a breakfast television appearance on Monday morning that what he thought was Australia defeating France 1-0 and advancing to the semifinals of the World Cup was actually footage of their pretournament warm-up fixture.

As the rest of the country went into various states of hyperventilation as the actual game went into extra time and then a remarkable penalty shootout, Joyce went out to dinner, operating under the impression that Mary Fowler had sent his nation into the final four. It was only when he finished his meal did he realise.

Why the Commercial Hotel in Walcha was broadcasting a replay of this game, rather than a live fixture on free-to-air television is unknown. As is why nobody in the pub picked up the footage on the screen very clearly taking place at Melbourne’s Docklands Stadium — which is not a World Cup venue — as opposed to Brisbane’s Lang Park.

One hopes that the former leader of the National Party, who readers might remember as the politician who threatened to euthanise actor Johnny Depp’s dogs if he didn’t immediately send them back to California, has better luck in watching Australia’s clash with England. But given that the two nations previously played a friendly in April, he may want to triple check which game is on before he settles in — Joey Lynch

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