Catherine Paquette previews tomorrow’s Olympic Games Gold Medal match between Sweden and Canada by examining it through the lens of each nation’s most experienced players before looking at each side’s biggest threats and summarising what they need to do in order to win.
Above: Canada celebrate their semi-final win over the USA. Will they be celebrating again tomorrow? Photo: Getty Images
The Olympics women’s football tournament has only ever had three different champions. The US have won four golds in 1996, 2004, 2008 and 2012, Norway won one in 2000 and Germany won the latest one in 2016.
This upcoming gold medal match will crown a new Olympic champion in either Canada or Sweden. Both are previous medallists, albeit of another colour. Canada are playing for their third consecutive medal, having won back-to-back bronzes in the previous two Olympics. This is the second gold medal match in a row for the Swedes, having taken silver in Rio.
Moreover, when the new Olympic champion is crowned on Friday in Tokyo, it will also mean that one of two football legends will finally have won a major tournament.
Sweden’s captain Caroline Seger first played for her nation in 2005. She has since made 220 appearances for her national team and become the most capped European player of all time, man or woman. The 36-year-old has participated in every World Cup and Olympics since first making her debut, and finished a high of third and second respectively in both competitions.
Canada’s captain Christine Sinclair made her senior debut aged 16 in 2000. The 38-year-old has been a mainstay of the Canadian squad for 21 years and has amassed 303 caps. At 187 goals, she is the highest international goal scorer ever, man or woman. The highest she has ever finished at the World Cup or Olympics is fourth and third respectively.
Despite their ages, neither player has ended up on the fringes of their national team. Seger was integral to the semi-final win against Australia. Sinclair scored the first goal of the tournament for Canada. On top of their individual performances, it is their leadership skills that both nations will turn to this Friday when trying to finally obtain gold.
Sweden will enter the match as favourites to win. The team impressed in the group stage, winning every match in the “group of death”. They did this through solid defending, good tactical play and brilliantly creative offence.
Their smart tactical play is arguably what originally caught the attention of most viewers. Sweden’s first game against the United States was won 3-0, in what was the Americans’ worst defeat in 14 years. The Swedes were able to hit the US defence with numbers and speed and find a lot of space to finish attacks. Their possessive play and pressure left the Americans looking disjointed and with few ideas of what to do with or without the ball. On the other side of the pitch, the Swedish defence was good at cutting down attacks and minimizing American chances.
It is these three strengths that Sweden kept displaying throughout the tournament. While they had no blow out games, they were consistent in their tactics, smart and lethal in their offence and solid in their defence. They enter this gold medal match with 13 goals scored in the tournament, from seven different players, and only 3 goals conceded.
That is tied with Canada for the least amount of goals conceded for any of the semi-final teams. By far the Canadian strength this tournament has been their defence. The ability of Canada to minimize chances on goal has been what has brought them to this final match.
Offensively though, Canada has struggled. They are able to clear the ball with smart clean defensive plays and then to progress forward in what can be very dangerous and effective transitions. However when they get to the final third, especially the ability to penetrate the box, they have continuously struggled. In total they have nine accurate shots on goal this whole tournament. That is four shots less than the total amount of goals that Sweden have scored.
The upcoming match can therefore be expected to be a competition between the Canadian defensive capabilities versus Sweden’s offensive powers. Canada have lined up in a 4-3-1-2, with a diamond midfield, for nearly the entirety of the tournament. One would expect that they keep this shape for the final game.
The central pairing of Vanessa Gilles and Kadeisha Buchanan will have to continue to be as effective at working together and at providing smart clean defensive decisions alongside fullbacks Ashley Lawrence and Allysha Chapman. The same goes for defensive midfielder Desiree Scott, who has been brilliant for Canada for years now in the number six position. When the ball is cleared, it will be essential that the transition does not give it up, and properly builds into the Swedish half. Alongside Scott, the two outside parts of the diamond midfield are Jessie Fleming and Quinn with Sinclair up top. They are capable of quick transitions or slower build-ups to the forward pairing of Janine Beckie and Nichelle Prince.
Canada will most likely face a Swedish team that play in a 4-2-3-1 formation. With their two double pivot sixes of Seger and Filippa Angeldal in front of centre-backs Nathalie Bjorn and Amanda Ilestedt, Sweden have proven dangerous in the transition and able to pass the ball through opposition lines to their attacking force. The midfield attacking trio of Fridolina Rolfö, Kosovare Asllani and Sofia Jakobsson have been deadly in their creative offensive play, capable of creating space to penetrate behind defences, and also in their individual ability to score. Whether they are paired up with Stina Blackstenius or Lina Hurting as the lone striker position has not mattered much as both have been effective in converting chances to goals.
Canada will have to properly track the Swedish attackers who can be fluid and interchangeable in their positions. Both teams have shown they can mount attacks through the centre of midfield and off on their flanks. The Canadian diamond midfield has made it difficult for teams to penetrate through the middle, especially due to Canada’s constant direct pressure on any player trying to progress centrally. During Swedish attacks on the sides, the Canadian defence will have to ensure they do not allow themselves to be pulled too wide by the Swedish midfield trio, leaving space for the other opponents to penetrate the final line.
Sweden will likewise have to watch out for this, especially on the Canadian right hand side with fullback Lawrence proving not only to be Canada’s best player this tournament, but a fullback that can venture deep into the opposition’s side and provide accurate service. Canada’s attack tends to be direct. However, if Lawrence can better create with Fleming and Beckie, as has been seen at times in this tournament but not consistently, this could be the best and most creative avenue of attack for Canada’s offence.
Compressing the Canadian transition, as other teams have done, will restrict their ability in the final third and make it easier for Sweden to defend. Being bolder in the box and completing the chances they get will be imperative for the Canadians in order to get gold, especially when facing a Swedish back line which has proved especially competent at aerial battles.
Whatever defensive shape, offensive capabilities, or final score on Friday though, it should be an exciting match. While finals do tend to be more conservative, the Swedes will have the memory of the 2016 loss at the back of their mind while the Canadians will be fighting in their first gold medal match. It should turn out to be an exciting game.
For fans of Christine Sinclair and Caroline Seger, there will be tears at the end. Whether those are tears of joy or tears of pain will be dependent on whom you support.
Olympic Games Women’s Football Gold Medal Match: Kick-Off moved to 1:00pm BST/2:00pm CET/8am ET/9pm Local Time. In the UK, the game will be shown live on Eurosport Player. Check local listings for overseas viewers.