Eight months out from the start of the 2023 Women's World Cup, national teams will be using the last four remaining FIFA windows -- in November, February, April and June -- to prep for the upcoming tournament, with all but four of the qualified teams in action over the next week.
For most, the emphasis is on pitting themselves against other teams who've punched their ticket for next summer's tournament. But with a raft of fixtures taking place over such a small amount of time, which are the ties to look out for?
United States pick a stern test
The USA's double-header against Germany (7 p.m. ET Thursday, and 5 p.m. ET Sunday on ESPN) should be high on most people's agendas as the World champions look to find some stability against a Germany team that's building up a head of steam into the World Cup.
Three years into Vlatko Andonovski's tenure as USWNT boss and there are possibly more questions than answers around the squad. A pair of losses in Europe (against England and Spain) last month has highlighted the fragility of the once-dominant side, as uncertain wins throughout the rest of the year that papered over the cracks that became the first back-to-back losses endured by the team since the 2017 SheBelieves Cup (where they lost to England and France.)
With a wealth of talent coming through the pipelines as always, the biggest challenge for Andonovski isn't about choosing the right XI to play, but about getting those on the pitch to find the harmony and belief that has seen the U.S. win four World Cup titles.
Up against a Germany team who only just reached the final of the Euros in England this summer -- a match they lost in extra time to hosts, England -- the No. 1 ranked team in the world will have to out-play their opposition, something they've struggled with over the past few years.
For Germany, who very nearly added to their record eight European titles but lost to England in the final in the summer, their trip across the pond is much more about producing performances that speak to the quality available in their team. Much like her opposite number, Martina Voss-Tecklenburg is spoiled for choice when it comes to selecting players, but where she differs from Andonovski, the Germany head coach is a little more reticent about making changes when needed during matches.
Up against a U.S. side that will start with as much talent on the bench as on the pitch, reaction will be as vital as action for the Europeans and for Voss-Tecklenburg, who waited until the very last second to go to her bench when she needed to at the Euros. This feisty double-header will require her to be more proactive in her management.
North America clashes with South America
The U.S. and Germany are far from the only nations that have chosen to play each other twice this month. For a start, Brazil vs. Canada (played on Friday and Tuesday) should be a good test for the teams representing both sides of the Americas.
From Canada's gold medal at the Olympics in Japan last summer, the team has yet to really hit such heights since and balance their attacking prowess with a robust defence -- the key to their Olympic success. But with main attacking options Nichelle Prince (Houston Dash), Jordyn Huitema (OL Reign), Cloe Lacasse (Benfica), Evelyne Viens (Kristianstad) and Adriana Leon (Manchester United) all in fine domestic form, the desire is always to see more attacking panache from the Canucks.
The key for manager Bev Priestman will be how flexible she makes her midfield, with her Brazil team expected to attack at will. The Olympic gold medal-winning coach will need to find a way of keeping the team strong while allowing a player like Jessie Fleming, who is in plumb form for Chelsea, to contribute to the attack in transition.
As for that attacking Brazil team? Coach Pia Sundhage has finally found some consistency in their results since the retirement of Formiga (aged 43) and Marta's ACL tear earlier this year. The Swedish coach has discovered the right blend of older and younger players, of defence and attack, and of those who play in the Campeonato Brasileiro de Futebol Feminino with those who play outside of Brazil.
Threatening to show her best for Brazil, Kerolin, who moved to the North Carolina Courage for the 2022 season, is finally coming good on her promise as her growing partnership with Debinha (the second-most capped player in the current squad) continues to take shape in the NWSL, benefiting the Canarinhas. Their partnership alone is always worth tuning in for.
While the squad as a single entity has found consistency, the individuals are yet to be as reliable as their predecessors and the test Canada will offer will be a chance for midfielders like Duda (both Francelino and Sampaio) or Bayern Munich's 23-year-old defender, Tainara, to show their quality.
Double-headers are the flavour of the month
Chile vs. Philippines, Colombia vs. Zambia, Jamaica vs. Paraguay, Senegal vs. Cameroon and New Zealand vs. South Korea all on the slate for two head-to-head games over the coming week as well. Although they're maybe not the matches that would have you traditionally wanting to watch, with six of the eight nations already qualified and the other two of Chile and Paraguay in the playoffs, there should be plenty of excitement around the four clashes.
The lowest-ranked nation at the tournament next summer -- unless Cameroon, ranked 84th by FIFA, qualify through their playoff group -- Zambia (No. 81) delighted novice audiences with their fearless play at the Olympics last year, though they need experience against teams outside Africa as they ready themselves for their first World Cup. Opting to face Colombia (No. 27), who featured at two of the last three World Cups, should provide a stern test and should help the Copper Queens when it comes to playing teams from Latin America as Costa Rica were drawn in their World Cup group. The same ought to be true for Colombia, who will be given a boost playing a CAF team, with fellow African debutantes Morocco (No. 76) in their group next summer.
A growing team and another of the next summer's World Cup debutantes, Philippines are looking not just for two strong performances against La Roja, but some much-needed experience as they enjoy a resurgence under new manager, Alen Stajcic, following a sizable period of dormancy. With Chile gearing up for their intercontinental playoff match in February against the winner of Senegal vs. Haiti, the team from South America will be favourites regardless of who they clash with in the playoff Group B final, but staying fresh and making sure everyone understands their roles on the pitch will be paramount for José Letelier.
With Paraguay (No. 51) also in playoff action at the start of next year (in Group C), Las Guaraníes will have to overcome Chinese Taipei (No. 40) to make it to the final of the group, against the winner of Papua New Guinea (No. 50) vs. Panama (No. 57). With this challenge ahead, the Reggae Girlz -- led by charismatic striker, Khadija "Bunny" Shaw -- ought to give Paraguay more than a good run for their money and could provide an early look into how the South American team will fare in their playoff group.
In the third playoff group, Portugal (No. 23) await the winner of Cameroon (No. 58) vs. Thailand (No. 41), which gives more weight to the friendly pair of matches Senegal and Cameroon will play in Dakar -- both African nations are two matches from a place at the World Cup, but neither are considered favourites. This window is the last chance for nations like Senegal and Cameroon to work on their shortcomings before they attempt to join the fun next summer in Australia and New Zealand.
Other teams looking for tests in Europe
Still looking for their feet under coach Futoshi Ikeda, Japan are once again in Europe this month as they face England (Friday) and Spain (Tuesday), the latter the last team they'll meet in their World Cup group at the end of July.
Not quite the team they were since winning the 2011 World Cup, the departure of coach Asako Takakura after five fruitless years has given Nadeshiko the chance to hit reset once more. However, they've yet to look like the real deal under Ikeda. With the coach trying to integrate younger players like striker Riko Ueki, midfielders Nanami Kitamura and Hinata Miyazawa into the fold while experimenting with different formations, there is a lack of a clear overarching picture.
With time ticking down to the World Cup, the question isn't so much whether Japan will be ready in time, but rather if Ikeda knows what he wants from this team. Facing two teams who like to keep the ball as much as they do, there is no better time to see if the coach has answers to the bigger questions around their playing style.
For Spain, who will spar with Argentina before facing Japan, there are ample distractions off the pitch with the majority of the Barcelona and Basque contingent still missing from the squad due to the dispute with the federation and no clear end in sight. As such, the squad Jorge Vilda has called in has a distinctly young feel to it, with 13 of the 23 born in the 2000s.
The coach and his charges would have taken great heart from beating the USA last time out, but Japan will be a different problem for them. A win wouldn't necessarily be building confidence, but with Spain known for struggling to put their best attacking football on display at major tournaments, it could be a road map for their trickiest World Cup group game next summer.
An all-European affair
Elsewhere on the continent, Norway will clash with France (Friday) before taking on England (Tuesday), which will provide new manager Hege Riise some much needed answers as she attempts to rebuild the team after humiliation at the Euros. Still new to the team, Riise is not just without the best two players in the Norwegian talent pool right now -- Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen -- but is trying to bring in fresh talent.
Norway may well come away with two losses from their two matches, but the important thing for Riise will be the performances.
Opting for just the one match this window, against Norway, France are still looking for answers in attack since the loss of Marie Antoinette-Katoto to an ACL injury during the Euros. It's a similar problem to Katoto's club team, PSG, and just like the French giants, there may well be no easy answer for manager Corinne Diacre.
On an unprecedented unbeaten run, European champions England will be sparring with Japan on Friday and Norway on Tuesday. Having beaten the U.S. last month, the Lionesses will feel good about claiming two wins from two, but trying to maintain their course from their Euros win into the World Cup will be a tricky task for Sarina Wiegman.
Still without captain Leah Williamson, the Lionesses are trying to navigate new terrain without Ellen White and Jill Scott following their retirements. Although this opens up chances for peripheral and bench players, we know that once Wiegman picks her favoured 11, it's hard for others to stake their claim.
Elsewhere in Europe
Another team travelling far this month are Costa Rica (No. 37 per FIFA), who will be returning to the World Cup after missing out on the tournament in France in 2019. They have friendlies against Netherlands (Friday) and Portugal (Tuesday).
Portugal will be looking for games to keep them warm and well-oiled heading into their playoff in February, while the Dutch are still fumbling around for an identity since losing the mercurial Wiegman to England. Having parted ways with Wiegman's replacement, Mark Parsons, shortly after a disappointing and disjointed Euros campaign, the Dutch narrowly qualified for the World Cup and have been searching for how they want to play under new boss, Andries Jonker.
The problem for Jonker isn't just that he can't call upon talismanic striker, Vivianne Miedema, who is taking time off to rest and rehab after a long year, but his fondness to lean on the older players who, by now, should be making way for the younger ones.
The Republic of Ireland's meeting with Morocco in Southern Spain on Monday afternoon should provide something different for fans, with both teams in the long list of debutantes for the upcoming World Cup. For Morocco, who have impressed since rebooting their women's football team, matches against non-African opposition have been few and far between -- although they did lose 4-0 to both Poland and Canada last month -- and clashes with European nations are vital as they grow on the world stage.
As for Vera Pauw's Republic of Ireland, who at long last have finally qualified for a major tournament, building belief within the squad will be key. The Dutch coach is one who revels in tactical battles, and she'll be pleased her charges are coming up against a different type of opposition as they ready themselves for the biggest test next summer.
And finally ... the World Cup hosts
Finally to the tournament hosts, with Australia playing Sweden (Saturday) and Thailand (Tuesday), while New Zealand sink their teeth into their double-header with South Korea on the same days. The Ferns last clashed with Korea in November 2021 when they played twice in Goyang, losing one and winning one, the marker of the two games the tactical battle between managers Colin Bell and Jitka Klimková, soon after the latter had taken over as New Zealand boss.
A little all over the place at times, the Ferns have one of the smaller talent pools to call upon and Klimková has struggled to get consistent performances from a squad that remains polarised between youth and experience. With two matches against the U.S. slated for the start of 2023, Klimková will be looking for performances her team can build on against South Korea.
Although Thailand might be a more routine game for the Matildas on Tuesday, this clash with Sweden should be one of the highlights of the international window. Having squared off three times last year, the Matildas had mixed fortunes against Sweden, drawing their June friendly before being on the losing end of a 4-2 group stage score and a 1-0 semifinal loss.
By this point, Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson and his fellow Swede, Peter Gerhardsson, are used to going head-to-head, but the pair always manage to come to the table (or pitch) with something different. With Sweden having suffered a gentle dip in form, Gerhardsson will be looking to correct where connections are fraying as Gustavsson continues to give vital minutes to his youthful defence that is likely to be under the cosh against Sweden once again.