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Sep 20, 2007

Five things I think about the quarterfinals

What a fun Women's World Cup it's been and I'm looking forward to more of the same as the quarterfinals start. Here are five things I expect to see this weekend:

1. Yolanda the Panda

If you missed the England-Argentina game, you missed the breakout performance of Yolanda, the stuffed panda toy that doubles as the lucky charm of the English national team. She's a star and she loves the camera. (She was always sneaking behind head coach Hope Powell to make sure she got some screen time.) Expect more of the same on Saturday, especially in those tense moments at the end of what looks to be a close match with the U.S.

2. Lots of Goals

Though Brazil struggled a bit against Denmark, the game didn't mean anything to them and they were resting two starters. Brazil rolled virtually uncontested through the first two games of group play, and Marta's been among the best players in the tournament so far. If the team gets back its rhythm, expect lots of goals against Australia. At the same time though, Australia will give the Brazilian defense problems, and it could end up being a high-scoring affair.

3. Game-breaking talent

Marta and Kelly Smith. Kelly Smith and Marta. This isn't just hype anymore, both players have proven it in group play. With Brazil favored to win, the key for Marta will be to settle the team down early and get everyone involved. She was masterful against China (two goals and two assists in a 4-0 win) and demonstrated that when she's playing well, Brazil is very difficult to beat. (Yes, they have difficulties with the U.S., but we'll save that discussion for when and if the teams meet down the line.)

Kelly Smith's in a much different position, with her team the underdog to the No. 1-ranked U.S. She has a strong, hard-working team around her, but England only can go as far as Smith takes them -- whether it's on the ball and scoring goals and drawing fouls -- or off the ball and drawing defenders. She seems to be able to take control of a game at will, as we saw in the 2-2 draw against Japan, when she took her team from down 1-0 with10 minutes to play to up 2-1 with seven minutes to play.

But don't forget supersub Lisa De Vanna of Australia -- her speed changes the game. She scored the game-tying goal against Norway and set up the dramatic game-tying goal against Canada that sent Australia to the quarterfinals. Expect to see her in the final 30 minutes of Brazil-Australia.

4. An upset

Clearly, this one is a bit of a stretch, but it's got to happen some time, doesn't it? The Women's World Cup has traditionally been a favorites tournament, but with the rest of the world catching up and a few favorites not playing well, this could be the year that the underdog sneaks into the semifinals. Germany has been tough to figure out after its 11-0 showing against Argentina, but its keeper Nadine Angerer has looked shaky and nearly gave away a cheap goal to England in the 0-0 draw. If the same tough North Korean side that pushed the U.S. to the brink in the first game shows up in the quarterfinals, Germany will have its hands full.

The Americans also have a tough quarterfinal match ahead of them with England. On paper, it looks to be one of the best matches of the tournament. The No. 1 side in the world, not playing at its best, takes on the upset-minded English, the No. 12 squad in the world -- and the only team to play both the U.S. and Germany this year and gain points from both teams. Whatever the roster was the last time the U.S. played England in January (Wambach, Boxx, Lilly and Rampone all didn't make the trip to the Four Nations tournament), the draw gave this young English team confidence to know it can hang with the best teams in the world.

Then, there are the Matildas. Brazil is the team to beat and it will be tough, but there's just something about Tom Sermanni's Australian squad. It refuses to lose. The Aussies have great team speed and good depth on the bench, which should give the Brazilian defense some problems.

5. Being good hosts

The crowds have been behind China throughout the tournament, and the atmosphere for the quarterfinal game with Norway should be fun to watch. China's been a bit up and down in group play and Norway's been the better team of the two, but China will be looking to join the U.S. as the only host countries to ever make it to the semifinals. It's also a bit of a flashback as both teams met in the 1999 semifinals when both teams were still powerhouses. Now, both teams are trying to make it back to the national stage.

Jacqueline Purdy is an editor for espnradio.com. She also hosts the ESPN Women's Soccernet podcast on ESPN PodCenter. She can be reached at purdysoccer@yahoo.com.

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