To most observers, the likely outcome of Group D at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Japan 2012 was an easy call. Major women's footballing powers Germany and USA, both two-time winners of the trophy for this age group, went into the tournament as joint favourites and were expected to make comfortable progress to the quarter-finals.
In fact, experts predicted the group stage would be little more than a warm-up for the big two, but it was not quite the stroll in the park expected by many, as China PR in particular came within a whisker of a major upset against USA.
The group replayed
Matchday 1 ran entirely according to the script, with Germany and USA both recording convincing 4-0 victories over the Chinese and Ghana respectively. At this point, the favourites looked set to cruise through to the next stage.
However, Matchday 2 all but turned the form book on its head. The Europeans required a stoppage-time goal to squeeze past the Black Princesses, while the North Americans fell behind to China PR and were ultimately relieved to salvage a draw.
With plenty still to play for in the final round of matches, title holders Germany steamrollered their long-time rivals and maintained their perfect record with a 3-0 victory, meaning USA only made the next stage thanks to a better goal difference than the Chinese, who did their job and beat Ghana, but only by one goal.
Blanks on the board for unlucky Africans
Switzerland in Group A, Argentina in Group C and Ghana all packed for home without registering a single point. It was doubly disappointing for the Black Princesses, however, as they were the only team at the tournament who departed without scoring: Argentina and the Swiss each managed a single goal.
Sharp-shooters Hayes and Lotzen
USA striker Maya Hayes finished as top scorer in the section with four goals, including a hat-trick against Ghana. With the exception of an own goal by the Africans’ Linda Addai, the 20-year-old Hayes has thus scored all her team’s goals so far. Germany's Lena Lotzen was the second best markswoman on three goals.
Thank you Hiroshima
The first host city to bow out of the tournament was Hiroshima, venue for the first matchdays in Group D. By way of thanks for the superb local support, the US girls unveiled a banner after their meeting with China PR proclaiming “Thank you, Hiroshima", and paraded their message in front of all four grandstands. A large, shimmering flame shone over the start of proceedings in Big Arch Stadium, constructed in 1992 and venue for the 1994 Asian Games, creating an atmosphere strongly reminiscent of the Olympics.
10 - Holders Germany have now won their last 10 matches at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup, equalling the record held by USA. After winning the third-place match at Chile 2008, the Germans triumphed in front of their home crowds with six wins on the trot at the previous edition in 2010, and have continued their streak in Japan with three further victories. Maren Meinert’s team made it through the group stage without conceding a goal, a feat previously achieved by only two other teams, Brazil and Korea DPR in 2006.
"It was a really tough group, maybe even the toughest at the tournament, with a variety of playing styles. Ghana are very athletic, China PR keep it tight, and Germany are very well organised. It's been a good lesson for my players," USA coach Steve Swanson.