Women's World Cup 2015 preview: Germany and the United States lead the way, but keep an eye out for Brazil, Japan and England

England may be outsiders and yet to win a knockout-stage match, but the tournament expansion could give a helping hand to a final charge

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The best players do not always win the biggest prizes. Pele and Maradona won the World Cup but Johan Cruyff did not, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are still trying, and Alfredo Di Stefano never even played in one.

So it is with the female side of the game. Five-times World Player of the Year Marta goes into the Women’s World Cup, which opens tonight, still seeking a winner’s medal after three failed attempts. As is Abby Wambach, another former World Player of the Year and the highest international goalscorer, male or female, in history.

At least they are there. Current World Player of the Year, Nadine Kessler of Germany, will be watching on television when the tournament opens in Edmonton with hosts Canada taking on China. Even without her, however, Germany are the team most likely to deny Marta and Wambach a first title.

Germany, winners of the last six European Championships, showed their class in brushing England aside 3-0 in the inaugural Wembley women’s international in November. Unexpectedly beaten at the quarter-final stage at the last World Cup, on home soil in 2011, they won the previous two tournaments and have a squad of talent and depth.

The Americans, boosted by supporters crossing the 49th parallel and familiarity with conditions, are expected to push Germany closest. They have made the last four in all seven Women’s World Cups but last won in 1999. Four years ago they reached the final but lost on a penalty shoot-out to Japan, a defeat partially avenged in the final of the 2012 Olympics. Their prime weakness is that key players such as Wambach and Christie Rampone, who turns 40 during the finals, are long in the tooth while Nike pin-up (and deadly striker) Alex Morgan goes into the finals carrying an injury.

Germany Women will head into the World Cup as favourites

The draw, however, is likely to result in Germany and the Americans meeting in the semi-finals, which opens the possibility of a place in the final to the likes of Brazil, Japan – and England.

This is England’s fourth appearance at the finals, and the third in succession, but they are yet to win a knock-out match having been beaten at the quarter-final stage in all three previous competitions. The expansion of the tournament to 24 teams, leading to the creation of a round of 16, means that hurdle should final be cleared, but they are outsiders for the tournament. 

England open against France, who are themselves valid dark horses, on Tuesday in the small bi-lingual (Anglo-French) city of Moncton in the Atlantic province of New Brunswick. A point would be an excellent start though the vagaries of the draw are such that winning the group (and heading into the half of the knock-out stage likely to contain Germany and USA) is undesirable. Defeat ought not prevent England progressing as Colombia and Mexico, neither of whom have ever won a World Cup finals match, make up the group. The quarter-finals are regarded as par for England, anything better is a bonus. Failure to get to the last eight, is, given the Football Association’s investment in this team, failure.

United States Women could meet their German counterparts in the semi-finals

Should England crash out, as they did at Euro 2013, stern questions will be asked of the FA’s decision to appoint Mark Sampson as successor to the long-serving Hope Powell, who was sacked after that debacle in Sweden.

Welshman Sampson, 32, was a surprise choice, appointed on the basis of five successful years with Bristol Academy in the FA Women’s Super League. While undoubtedly a good coach his lack of experience, especially at international level, raised eyebrows. Other contenders included Canada’s English coach John Herdman, who oversaw the Canucks’ 2012 Olympic win over GB and will be working at his fifth major finals having previously taken New Zealand to two World Cups and an Olympics.

Sampson led a very successful qualifying campaign with England winning all ten games and scoring 52 goals to one. While the opposition was weak the players embraced Sampson’s attacking philosophy after Powell’s more disciplined approach. However, the Wembley defeat to Germany, when England were overrun, appears to have engendered a change of outlook and England have been more solid, but less potent, in subsequent warm-up matches.

Brazil's legendary midfielder Marta is yet to win a first World Cup

There is attacking flair in the team, with Eniola Aluko, US-based Jodie Taylor and rising star Fran Kirby all goalscorers, and Arsenal duo Lianne Sanderson and Jordan Nobbs capable of the spectacular. However, key players are short of match action through injury and suspension, especially in defence, while the recent switch to 4-4-2, using some players out of position, calls into question the decision to omit in-form Chelsea winger Gemma Davison.

One aspect all teams will have to cope with is the surface. The tournament is to be played on artificial turf, common in Canada due to the climate, but not popular among players. Wambach went so far as to organise a protest petition by players, which was followed by legal action. This, though, faltered when it became clear Fifa were not changing their mind, and there was too little time to replace the training and match surfaces.

England Women's head coach Mark Sampson

How this affects games remains to be seen. England did not look truly comfortable on it during a disappointing warm-up against Canada last week. Veteran defender Casey Stoney, who played in that match, said: “We’ve been training on it, but every artificial turf pitch we train on is different. It is really important we have a look the day before matches at the pitch and see how ball runs and bounces.”

She added: “It is not ideal having a World Cup on artificial turf, but it is the same for every team. I think it could be the team that adapts best that wins the tournament.”