Deep Women's World Cup field takes aim at dethroning champions U.S.
The Women's World Cup will be the biggest yet, and the hardest to win. It is possible to make a case for almost half of the 24 teams as the rest of the world closes the gap on the usual suspects.
Countries that once paid lip service to the women's game are now taking it seriously. Standards of coaching, fitness, skills and professionalism are rising fast. Witness the Netherlands and Denmark surprisingly contesting the last European Championship final, rather than once dominant Germany.
That said, the three-time champion U.S. will still take all the beating. Carli Lloyd, hat-trick hero in the final four years ago and star of the tournament, is a 36-year-old super-sub now. Excellent youngsters like the artistic Rose Lavelle have been added to the old guard of Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Becky Sauerbrunn.
But the U.S. lost to hosts France 3-1 this year and were held 2-2 by England and Japan. That defence may not be watertight, yet Jill Ellis's team retain that feisty character and lose very rarely.
France have a stylish and experienced team and could easily win it, but have never made the final of a major tournament. How will they cope with the pressure of playing at home and being co-favourites?
Germany won away to France this year to signal their threat, with midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsan pulling the strings. Not sure they are quite good enough to go all the way, though.
Japan, who beat the U.S. in the 2011 final, are always good technically, but this group might be a year away from peaking. They warrant plenty of respect.
So do England, managed by former Manchester United man Phil Neville and featuring one of the best players in the world in right-back Lucy Bronze and clever creator Fran Kirby. Their pre-tournament losses to Canada and the modest New Zealanders might have dented confidence a little.
Up until 18 months ago, you could make a strong case for Australia, with a team full of tough, experienced players and one of the best strikers around in Sam Kerr. They repeatedly gave the U.S. a hard time. But they have changed coaches amid much political turmoil and now play a high line that does not suit a slowing defence. They may concede too many against the better teams.
The Netherlands have not quite built on their Euro win and needed a playoff to qualify. Brazil are probably outsiders these days, with former World Player of the Year Marta now 33, Cristiane 34 and Formiga a remarkable 41.
Others like Sweden and Canada know the terrain well, while Spain would be very dangerous if they had a poacher to finish off their lovely passing moves. Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas might have the best left foot in the tournament. Of the rest, it would be no surprise to see one or two other improving nations cause a shock or two.
With record crowds and TV audiences expected, it's a tournament that might capture the imagination like never before.