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2016 Olympic preview - A wide open field in Group E

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A balanced group, with three teams who could flame out or go all the way

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Group E

Brazil
Sweden
China
South Africa

Schedule

August 3
Sweden vs South Africa (12 PM ET)
Brazil vs China (3 PM ET)

August 6
South Africa vs China (6 PM ET)
Brazil vs Sweden (8 PM ET)

August 9
South Africa vs Brazil (9 PM ET)
China vs Sweden (9 PM ET)

Full schedule here

Group E looks to be the most competitive of the tournament, with storylines up and down the schedule. Compared to the other two groups--which have a clear pecking order--this one could really go any direction. Brazil, China, and Sweden will all like their chances to top the group, and they'll also all be wary of slipping into third and potentially missing the knockout stages entirely. And South Africa, the fourth group member, is also likely to have something to say about the process. While their odds of advancing are relatively short, they are no pushovers, and could quite plausibly pull off an upset or two.

Sweden

FIFA ranking: #6
Best finish: 4th place (2004)

Sweden enter the tournament looking to win coach Pia Sundhage a third straight gold medal. Back home after leading the USWNT through several tournaments of success, she now heads a team that have spent most of the past decade never quite living up to the significant talent of their core. Sundhage's goal will be to get one more big tournament from the old core, and to bring in some younger supporting parts to help them along.  Recent results suggest that they'll put on a good show, having won six out of six in their Euro qualifying campaign.  They'll certainly be hoping to build on that success.

They usually play in a relatively straightforward 4-4-2 with a great deal of technical precision but not always a ton of creativity. As always, their attacking potential will depend quite a bit on Lotta Schelin—Sweden's all-time leading goalscorer and one of the world's best strikers over the past decade. But, while still a force on the pitch, the longtime Lyon star is now 32 years old and is not quite the dominant physical presence she once was. Still, she remains a dangerous threat, and will be tough for any opposing defense to manage. A key question for Sweden is the potential success of her partnership with Kosovare Asllani, now at Manchester City. They have worked well playing off each other in the past, with Schelin playing facilitator for Asllani's pace and technical skill.

In the midfield, as always, the key player is Caroline Seger, who will be familiar to fans of the WPS (where she played for two years with Western New York and Philadelphia before returning to Europe). At 31, she still possesses a fabulous work rate, and is the engine that keeps the midfield ticking. She'll be accompanied by Lisa Dahlkvist, who will likely focus more on defensive duties, but who is an excellent passer of the ball and will hope to assert herself as more of a deep-lying playmaker. Another name to look for is Fridolina Rolfö, a talented new addition to the squad who has contributed a few excellent goals in recent matches while playing as an inverted winger on the right side.

The defense should be solid, once again led by the old stalwarts Nilla Fischer at center back and Hedvig Lindahl in goal. Over the last 12 months, this unit has been exceptionally stingy—allowing only one solitary goal. Of course, in their final match at the World Cup against Germany, they let in four. So it remains to be seen whether they have the organization to cope with everything the world's best can throw at them.

Brazil

FIFA ranking: #8
Best finish: 2nd place (2004/2008)

The hosts of the tournament, Brazil will be hoping to revive some of the glory of their mid-2000s peak, following on a series of disappointing results over the past few years. As always, the key to the Brazilian effort is their effervescent superstar. While no longer quite the force of nature that she once was, Marta remains one of the best in the world, and the focal point of the Brazilian squad. She is arguably the single most crucial player at the tournament.  Without her, Brazil are a solid and potentially dangerous team. With her, they are a real threat to win Gold.

That said, it's important not to underestimate the rest of the Brazilian squad, with quite a few excellent players all across the pitch.  Cristiane has often played second fiddle to Marta, but is a world class striker in her own right. They will also be supported by the young but immensely talented Andressa Alves, who will be looking to attack from the right side of the midfield. Fans of the NWSL will also recognize a few key names: Andressinha and Poliana—who have both performed admirably at right back and central midfield for the Houston Dash, as well as Monica—the powerful center back for the Orlando Pride.

From top to bottom, Brazil's squad matches up to almost any in the competition. While they are probably a small step below the big three of the US, France, and Germany, it's not by much. However, their recent results haven't quite lived up to that level, with two recent losses to Canada, as well as defeats to the US, France, and New Zealand last fall.

The question is: with the home crowd cheering them on, and with the prospect of finally winning Marta the major tournament trophy that's always eluded her, will Brazil rise to the occasion?

China

FIFA ranking: #12
Best finish: 2nd place (1996)

After a very disappointing run of results from 2009-2014, China is building its way back up to the status of a world power.  They brought an extremely young team to the World Cup last summer, and made an excellent run to the quarterfinals, where they were then brushed aside by the US. The final score of 1-0 belies the gulf in class that was exposed, with the US running rampant for most of the game.

That same young squad are back, with 12 months more time under their belts, and some evidence of improvements. They've put up some strong results, and shown that a disciplined spine can do a great deal to control games. While they are relatively short on world-class attackers (apart from Yang Li, a clinical finisher who missed the World Cup last year due to injuries) and are somewhat bereft of midfield creativity, they are tenacious in defense—closing down attackers with numbers, and isolating their opponents' creative players.

They earned a 1-0 victory over the US last December—the only team to beat them in the past twelve months—and played well in Olympic qualifying, fighting out narrow victories over Japan and South Korea and draws against Australia and North Korea. Those results make clear that China is perfectly capable of beating anyone at this tournament. The key question is whether they're capable of developing a stronger attack. A string of 1-0 victories would certainly serve them well enough, but it's a risky proposition.

South Africa

FIFA ranking: #52
Best finish: 10th (2012)

Given the array of talent assembled against them, South Africa enter the tournament looking at fairly long odds. Still, as their recent match against the US shows, they are more than capable of hanging with bigger teams. As the cliché goes: they are exceptionally well organized, and provide further evidence that a unit working together defensively can do quite a lot frustrate even the best team in the world.

The key to South Africa's defensive work is midfield pressure. Rather than simply bunkering down in their own penalty area, and accepting an unending onslaught, they venture out and seek to limit the space in which the creative central players can work. That pressure on the ball is crucial, since it draws other players back out as well to generate outlet passes.  Leading this effort is their captain Janine Van Wyk, whose powerful performance against the US has kicked the rumor mill into gear about a possible move for her to Europe or the NWSL. Her capacity to organize the defense will be crucial if South Africa hopes to hold off the powerful attacks they'll be facing. They'll also need another excellent showing from keeper Roxanne Barker.

A strong result against the US shows what South Africa is capable of. That said, they did lose the match. Which clarifies just how difficult it will be for them in Rio. Given the gulf in talent, they're unlikely to get more than a few chances per game. To have any hope of advancing, they'll need to be ruthless when those chances come. Otherwise they may head home with some moral victories but not many points.

Prediction

  1. Brazil
  2. Sweden
  3. China
  4. South Africa