Has Australia Been Through Too Much, Or Brazil Too Little?
MONCTON, New Brunswick -- As Brazil prepares for its round of 16 game in Moncton, it's tempting to wonder if this small New Brunswick town also will be the place where it finally arrives in the tournament.
If that sounds strange, given Brazil played its last Group E game against Costa Rica here and completed the group stages without conceding a goal and winning all three of its games, it also acknowledges a nagging doubt about Brazil. Namely, that Brazil's group, while not exactly a cupcake, was hardly the bracing "welcome" to the tournament that its opponents Sunday, Australia, endured in the tournament's group of death against the United States, Nigeria and Sweden.
Now facing the elimination rounds, and facing a battle-hardened Australia, coach Oswaldo Vadão's team may be congratulating themselves on their ideal preparation, especially given the coach was able to rest the likes of Marta and Formiga in the team's final group game. But while Australia has the momentum from battling through the toughest group in the competition, Brazil's campaign so far has had something of the surreal air of a phony war.
There's certainly a case to be made that Brazil's opening three games, against the Republic of Korea, Spain and Costa Rica, rarely saw the Brazilians have to truly extend themselves.
Australia meanwhile, lost to the U.S. in its opening game, but as its FA website will tell you, played well enough to take the momentum into its remaining two group games and finish second over Sweden. Facing a tough group was daunting, but having survived it, Australia has shown a demonstrable sharpness we've not yet seen from Brazil. It's possible that in the knockout rounds, Brazil may not find it easy to smoothly move up to the high gears it hasn't yet needed.
Vadão said Saturday he was perfectly happy with how the group stage had prepared his team, but is aware Brazil needs to tighten its focus.
"From here on, all games are sudden death, so ... all the margin for error, the concentration, all the details, have to be very well thought out," Vadão said. "So we are prepared and have to prepare even better as concerns concentration, to keep the rhythm for the 90 minutes-plus of the game. And if we go to extra time, there is emotional wear and tear, so we have to be prepared a lot more than we were in this first stage."
Marta echoed the sentiment.
"I believe the coach said what we all think," Brazil's star said. "It's a different moment altogether. It doesn't allow us to make mistakes -- there won't be a next game if we lose. We need to be more precise. We have to focus and we have to be prepared for a final. Because from here on, every game will be a final."
Not that Marta herself is feeling undue pressure as Brazil enters the knockout round.
"I have to answer questions about pressure very often," she said. "For me, it's a natural phenomenon. There's pressure from the people watching in the stadium, our team -- the opposing team always try, one way or another, to put pressure on and put your team off balance.
"But playing in a World Cup, pressure is normal. I've always tried to overcome pressure in my life because there are other things we need to give priority to. We have to look to make things happen and not think 'we have to do this' because people are looking at you in the stadium, or you are one of the most experienced players. We share the pressure among all of us."
Marta didn't have any pressure in the final group game. Having already secured qualification in first place after their second game, Vadão opted to rest the iconic 29-year-old, along with the veteran Formiga, to have them as fresh as possible for the knockout stage.
"We had two players that were in no condition to play -- Fabiana and Thaisa," he said. "Marta and Formiga could have played, but I tried to spare them and I think that put us in a good position so that I can count on all the players for [Sunday]."
Vadão may be hoping to count on all his players, but with his strike force doing just enough and no more in the group stages, he knows his team has to become more ruthless in front of the goal on the chances it creates. Brazil has been ruthless in punishing mistakes by opposing defenses, but those mistakes now will be at a premium.
At the other end, Australia coach Alen Stajcic will have looked at the first half of the Brazil-Spain game in particular, when Vero Boquete and teammates were repeatedly able to pass through or get behind the Brazil back line and looked the better team. Andressa Alves' goal to open the scoring just before halftime was greeted ecstatically by the player herself, for being her first World Cup goal. But the relief for her teammates was palpable, and Australia's strikers are likely to cut their margin for error even further.
If Kyah Simon or Lisa De Vanna could get an early goal -- as one of them has done in the opening half hour of every game so far for Australia -- that might be the moment we get a truer picture of this Brazil team. Certainly, Elise Kellond-Knight was thinking less about the handful Marta might present and more about the problems her teammates could cause, as she previewed the game Saturday afternoon.
"We're a very dynamic team and I think the Brazilians may have a little bit of weakness in their back line," Kellond-Knight said. "So if we can exploit that, we'll end up with a really good result."
Stajcic was just as quietly confident. He acknowledged his team will be up against one of the best, but immediately pointed out what may be the most salient aspect of Sunday's game.
"We know we're coming up against one of the top teams in the world," Stajcic said. "We've already played three of those, so we can't wait to get out there."
Someone will be out of there Sunday. Australia will hope to build on its momentum, while Brazil will hope to steadily ramp up its own. But they're due a performance to bring the neutrals along with them. Otherwise, one of the favorites may be easing into this competition just in time to leave.