Canada and the Netherlands are set to lock horns in a critical Group E closer on Thursday to determine knockout stage paths of vastly varying difficulties, and, for a handful of players, it will be a reunion with familiar foes.
It's a clash of opposites. One of three sides yet to concede at the 2019 World Cup, Canada's chances of a maiden quadrennial victory are boosted by an organized defense, while the reigning European champions profit from potent goal-scoring threats to paper over the cracks of a worryingly inconsistent backline.
Canadian starting XI certainties Kadeisha Buchanan, Ashley Lawrence, and Janine Beckie ply their respective club trades in leagues featuring the four jewels of the Dutch attacking crown, and for coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller, heeding consultation from his star trio could prove critical against a side which poses a distinct threat going forward.
"We do that all the time because we've got players that know them in and out, either in the daily training environment or playing with them and against them up to four times a year," Heiner-Moller told theScore in May.
Center-half keystone Buchanan, who plays for Champions League chieftains Lyon, and full-back Lawrence, a key member of Paris Saint-Germain's footballing rise, form a sturdy right-sided duo that anchors Canada's staunch back-four. They're also savvy when it comes to Buchanan's Les Fenottes teammate and Dutch speed merchant Shanice van de Sanden, and 2017 FIFA Player of the Year Lieke Martens. A technically sound attacker, Martens lined up against Lyon in the 2018 Champions League final for Barcelona and played a principal role in bouncing Lawrence's PSG at the quarterfinal stage the previous season.
"In Europe, a lot of the top teams have players playing at the international level like the Netherlands, and I think for myself, Kadeisha, and Janine, it's a good test for us, and of course going into a World Cup it's good to have that familiarity," Lawrence told theScore.
In attack, wingers van de Sanden and Martens sandwich crafty Arsenal midfielder Danielle van de Donk, who provides a central creative pipeline that often works in combination with her Gunners sidekick, Vivianne Miedema.
Miedema, who shattered the Women's Super League (WSL) scoring record this season with 22 for the league winners, scored twice in the 3-1 victory against Cameroon. The first was a harbinger of the threats Canada could face. Van de Sanden scampered down toward the penalty area with a head of steam before firing a pinpoint cross onto the 22-year-old striker's melon. The second, a blistering solo run guided by deft technical skills, was an example of Miedema's individual brilliance. It was also a Dutch-record 60th goal in just 77 senior caps.
Heiner-Moller, who was not on the touchline when the two sides fought out a 1-1 stalemate during the group stages in 2015, is more than aware of the challenges of defending the Dutch attack.
"I think Miedema, van de Sanden, (Sherida) Spitse, all of those players in the Dutch team are playing at a very high level. You don't become European champions if you don't have those players," the Danish-born gaffer said.
Similar to Lawrence's admission that three years in the French capital "has really helped me develop my game technically," Beckie has improved her all-around repertoire as a player since moving to Manchester City in August 2018.
"I think playing against high-quality opponents in England has done so much for my game," Beckie - who on three occasions this season in English league and cup competition has faced van de Donk and Miedema - told theScore.
"The Dutch have good players, and they're going to be a tough side to beat."
As good as the Netherlands is going forward, there are veritable concerns at the other end of the pitch. Against Cameroon, Gabrielle Onguene had a field day versus Sarina Wiegman's porous defense. First, the 30-year-old forward leveled the scoreline after receiving an arching delivery over the top that deceived flat-footed Dutch defenders before shot-stopping skipper Sari van Veenendaal made a meal of an attempted punched clearance. It should have been 2-2 after the interval when the lithe Onguene sent Wolfsburg-bound Dominique Bloodworth for a taxi on the endline before finding Henriette Akaba with a perfectly weighted pass. The Dutch were lucky not to concede a second when Akaba's close-range effort was blocked by Anouk Dekker.
Cameroon employed the same approach in the group-opening defeat to Canada with nary the success displayed against the Dutch, as Buchanan and center-back buddy Shelina Zadorsky easily dealt with long balls aimed at circumventing Heiner-Moller's superior midfield three.
Beckie and fellow attackers Nichelle Prince and record-chaser Christine Sinclair should also unsettle the Netherlands' occasionally addled back-four, and for a squad that's conceded just once in 11 matches in 2019, one goal may be enough for Canada to top the quartet.
For the winner of Group E, a last-16 date with a largely uninspiring Japan awaits before a seemingly straightforward clash with surprise Italy, China, or Nigeria with a spot in the semifinals on the line. The runner-up faces a more imposing predicament in the form of high-scoring Sweden ahead of a likely meeting with a near-infallible Germany.
Heiner-Moller knows that the experiences of his European-based stars may help forge a more facile path for a Canada side fostering realistic World Cup ambitions, and the gaffer is content to note their input.
"They know something from being on the pitch," he admitted. "Being a coach sometimes you know it from the outside but you're not an expert. They're the expert, so you need to involve them."