Stars set as Women's World Cup knockout phase begins

The real competition is only just beginning as the women's World Cup heads into the knockout phase with hosts France and holders the United States – the two favorites – on a collision course to meet in the quarter-finals.

The Americans will face Spain in the round of 16 on Monday in Reims as the tournament enters the win-or-go-home phase. Games begin Saturday with Germany facing Nigeria in Grenoble followed by Norway's match against Australia.

Italy and China meet in Montpellier on Tuesday, followed by the Netherlands and Japan in Rennes.

The U.S. had emphatic wins in the group stage, routing Thailand 13-0 in the opener before more clinical victories over Chile and Sweden. The team had three shutouts while also collecting a World Cup group-stage record 18 goals.

Spain, ranked No. 13, finished second in its group to reach the knockout stage for the first time.

If the top-ranked Americans can defeat La Roja, they could possibly face No. 4 France in Paris next Friday. They could potentially face No. 3 England in the semifinals before getting a shot at defending their title.

The United States, France, England, Germany and the Netherlands all won their first three games in France. Like the Americans, Germany did not concede a goal.

2019 Women's World Cup knockout phase. /AFP Photo

2019 Women's World Cup knockout phase. /AFP Photo

The World Cup in France comes at a time when female players worldwide are fighting for better playing conditions, treatment and pay.

Ada Hegerberg, the first female Ballon d'Or winner, is not playing for Norway. She stepped away from the team over what she has characterized as the federation's lack of respect for the women's team.

The U.S. women's team filed a lawsuit back home earlier this year that accuses its federation of gender discrimination and seeks equitable pay to the men's team.

On Friday, the U.S. Soccer Federation has reached a tentative agreement for mediation with the women's national team to resolve complaints in a lawsuit over equal pay with the men’s team, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Who will be the Golden Boot?

American Alex Morgan and Australian Sam Kerr both have five goals to lead the tournament field.

Morgan matched a U.S. record by scoring five goals in the team's big win over Thailand while Brazil's Marta became the World Cup's all-time leading scorer with 17 goals.

Kerr got four in Australia's final group match, a 4-1 victory over Jamaica. It was the most goals for an Australian – male or female – in a World Cup game, and the final goal ensured the Matildas finished second in their group to avoid France in the round of 16.

VAR steals headlines

There have been plenty of positives to take from the two weeks of competition so far, but there has also been controversy stemming from the use of Video Assistant Referees (VAR).

The United States beat Sweden 2-0 in Le Havre on Thursday in another game featuring VAR controversy. /AFP Photo

The United States beat Sweden 2-0 in Le Havre on Thursday in another game featuring VAR controversy. /AFP Photo

The VAR again came to the fore in the USA's 2-0 win over Sweden on Thursday, with Jonna Andersson's second-half own goal in Le Havre standing despite substitute Carli Lloyd appearing to interfere with play from an offside position in the build-up.

VAR is struggling to deal with the new definition of handball, but the biggest controversies have come from retaken penalties, in Nigeria's defeat against France and then for Argentina to eliminate Scotland.

Critics might suggest FIFA are using the women's World Cup as a laboratory to see how VAR deals with the law changes. However, the chairman of FIFA's Refereeing Committee, Pierluigi Collina, has defended the changes.

"First of all I would remind everyone that, for a long time, goalkeepers had to keep both feet on the goal line until a penalty kick was taken," he pointed out.

(With input from AP, AFP)