Falconets fly high
As seeded teams, Nigeria and Ghana skipped the preliminary round and both largely proved themselves the class of the continent. In the first round, the Falconets of Nigeria enjoyed a comfortable victory against Liberia, winning the first leg 7-1 away in Monrovia - team captain Yetunde Adeboyejo completing a hat-trick - and adding another seven for luck at home. In the eight-team second round, Nigeria faced much tougher opposition in the form of Congo DR, who are the only other African country to have qualified for the World Cup. This time Chinwendu Ihezuo was the hero for her side as she scored once in Kinshasa in a 2-1 victory, and then two in the return leg when the west African team won 2-0.
Ghana had a similarly straightforward ride, starting their journey with a resounding 6-0 victory at home against Senegal and adding a 2-0 win in Dakar to comfortably overcome the first hurdle. In the second round, they faced a far stiffer Equatorial Guinea side, yet the Black Princesses advanced 3-0 on aggregate after a 2-0 win at home in the return leg.
Pitted against Ethiopia in the final round, Mas-ud Didi Dramani's team were overwhelming favourites to qualify for Papua New Guinea, but they did not have it all their own way as they needed a late goal by Kate Addo to snatch a 2-2 draw in Addis Ababa. The return leg in Kumasi saw a very different Ghana team, with the hosts running out 4-0 winners to book their fourth consecutive place at the finals. Sandra Owuso-Ansah top-scored for the Ghanaians, for whom eight different players (plus an own goal) scored the 17 goals their scored during the qualification.
Though the two qualifiers know what they are heading into next year, the previous appearances at the World Cup finals between the two teams could not be more different. The Falconets are one of four teams (Germany, USA and Brazil being the others) who have appeared at all seven previous finals. Apart from their first appearance in 2002, the west Africans have escaped the group stage every time and are on a run of three consecutive semi-finals. They played in the 2010 and 2014 final – both times losing to Germany and finished fourth in 2012, after being beaten by the USA in the semi-finals and then losing the play-off to Japan. In 2014, Nigeria's Asisat Oshoala was the tournament's outstanding player, winning not only the adidas Golden Ball but also the Golden Boot award with seven goals.
On the other hand, Ghana have failed to escape the group phase all three times they have appeared at the finals, though they showed considerable progress in Canada last year, winning two of their group matches (against Canada and Finland) and being eliminated only on goal difference.