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On Wednesday USA booked their spot in the Women’s World Cup final with what would appear, at first glance, to have been a relatively comfortable 3-1 victory. In actual fact; however, it was far from a straightforward task for Pia Sundhage’s side, who spent lengthy periods of the game chasing French shadows and sharing nervous glances as France’s wayward finishing let them off the hook time and again.
Twelve years on from their tournament winning shout-out triumph over China, much of the pre-match conversation centred on comparisons between the two US sides – the class of ’99, boasting superstars of the women’s game at the time such as Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly, and the current outfit whose chief protagonists include Hope Solo, arguably the best goalkeeper in the business, and veteran centre forward Abby Wambach.
All of that discussion would have been academic had the French forwards been on form on the day, and the dearth of time given to analysing Bruno Bini’s side by journalists and television pundits smacked of a lack of respect for what the team have achieved under his guidance. French women’s football has progressed at a remarkable rate in recent years and following Lyon’s victory over German giants Turbine Potsdam in May’s Champions League final people finally began taking note. Nevertheless, many leading followers of women’s football had Germany and Canada down as their favourites to advance from Group A (France’s group) and certainly gave Les Bleus only the most negligible chance of reaching the last four.
Having swatted supposed second spot rivals Canada aside as if they were a troublesome fly, finding the net four times in one of the most impressive displays by any side in the tournament thus far, Bini’s side booked their spot in the quarter finals with a game to spare, only letting slip their 100% record when they faced hosts and reigning champions Germany in what was effectively a play-off for top spot.
A narrow, yet thoroughly deserved win over England in the last eight saw France progress to the semi-finals in fine form, having established themselves as one of the most technically gifted sides in the tournament. Nevertheless, the US, as one of the pre-tournament favourites, dominated the build up and one could have been forgiven for thinking that they were up against a hastily assembled bunch of amateurs in the afternoon’s match.
It would be churlish of me; however, to suggest that the Americans were a mere sideshow to the French, and having defeated Brazil in such thrilling fashion on Sunday evening it is understandable that there was a lot of excitement about the US, particularly in light of Germany’s elimination in the previous round, leaving Sundhage’s side with a great chance of lifting the trophy in Frankfurt. Still, the gripping nature of their shoot-out victory over Marta and co should not have eclipsed France’s successes to the extent that it apparently did in the eyes of much of the media.
Francophile protestations over, I will now move onto the match itself…
The French started in characteristic fashion, working the ball around the pitch looking for openings in the American defence – openings that were not immediately forthcoming in a well drilled back four, who despite the inclusion of Becky Sauerbrunn for her first appearance of the tournament had amassed over 300 caps between them. Louisa Necib and Camille Abily, France’s two dovetailing playmakers, settled into the game very quickly and the latter forced Solo into an early save with a dipping effort from the edge of the box.
Unfortunately for Bini’s side, the US were also keen to play the game in the way they know best, and whereas France are exponents on the patient build-up, the Americans love nothing more than a quick, incisive move. Eight minutes in and following a period of French pressure, the US broke quickly down their left and winger Heather O’Reilly picked up the ball with space to run into. A half hearted barely existent attempt from Laura Georges to thwart her progress left the American free to cut infield and her low cross was met by a sliding Lauren Cheney who guided the ball beyond Bérangère Sapowicz to give her side an early lead.
The next twenty minutes or so were fairly evenly contested, France enjoying the majority of possession but struggling to trouble Solo, and the US causing panic in the French six yard box on a couple of occasions as Sapowicz either flapped at or completely missed American set piece deliveries. By this point it was relatively clear that France were the better team with the ball on the ground, but the US were far stronger in the air.
After half an hour France had a wonderful chance to equalise, but after racing onto Necib’s through ball, Gaetane Thiney’s clipped effort was palmed behind expertly by the onrushing Solo. Moments later, Sonia Bompastor let fly a thunderous drive following a short free kick but looked on in anguish as it crashed back off the crossbar with Solo beaten.
Necib and Abily each had further half chances as the US remained apparently content to soak up the pressure, and American patience was almost rewarded when a rare foray into the French half culminated in Wambach heading across the face of goal when presented with a glorious opportunity to double her side’s lead.
Half time arrived with the US leading by a goal to nil, but France having had more of the ball and, arguably, more clear chances. American finishing one, French possession nil.
Bini began the second half with a substitution, withdrawing the uncharacteristically quiet Marie Laure Delie and bringing on Lyon’s winger-cum-striker Eugenie Le Sommer.
The second period began much as the most of the first had gone, with France starving the US of possession but lacking any real penetration. Necib played another sumptuous through ball between the American centre halves but Thiney’s touch failed her at the crucial point and the opening was gone.
A crack appeared in Hope Solo’s polished façade when she palmed a hopeful effort from Thiney behind for a corner despite it being very catchable. Moments later France went one better and found themselves back on level terms.
Sonia Bompastor was given the freedom of the left channel, and having set herself she delivered a wicked driven cross, which just evaded both the head of Thiney and the attentions of Solo, nestling in the far corner of the net. Goalkeeper and centre back looked at each other accusingly, but in reality this was simply a freak goal. If anyone was to blame it was the fullback for allowing Bompastor so much time in a dangerous position.
Having weathered the French orage for the best part of an hour, the US failings had finally been exposed and Sundhage was not going to stand by and watch her much fancied side capitulate. She made two changes in the space of ten minutes, replacing the habitually ineffective Amy Rodriguez with promising forward Alex Morgan, and Carli Lloyd with proven game-changer Megan Rapinoe.
Her changes almost proved to be in vain when another unlikely lapse in concentration from Solo gifted France with a glorious opening. Under pressure from Les Bleus’ hard working front line, she misplaced a pass horribly, delivering the ball straight to the feet of Eugenie Le Sommer on the edge of the penalty area. The French substitute galloped purposefully towards goal, but faced with the chance to either shoot or pass to one of her well placed team mates, Le Sommer decided to take option c) and duly struck the ball wildly beyond Solo’s far post, neither a cross or a shot by any stretch of the imagination.
As time went by the American substitutes began to make a real difference to the balance of play. Rapinoe’s direct running meant that when the US nicked the ball they now had an outlet, and with Morgan constantly on the lookout for space behind the French back four they had to be on constant alert.
In a bid to restore his side’s dominance and add a new dimension to their attacking threat, Bini introduced Elodie Thomis, a blisteringly quick right winger, who replaced a more defensively minded player in 37-year-old skipper Sandrine Soubeyrand.
Only moments after taking the field; however, Thomis found herself on the trailing side. The US were getting forward with increasing regularity and forced a corner on the right. Cheney’s delivery was excellent, although the French defence made it look even better than it perhaps was, and talismanic striker Abby Wambach powered home a header at the far post. France had evidently not learned from their first half mistakes, as Sapowicz never left her line and Wambach was able to elude two French defenders as she ran onto the cross.
Bini’s side attacked immediately, but Le Sommer’s afternoon took another turn for the worse as she headed tamely wide at the far post having been left unmarked.
By this stage there was a certain inevitability about the US progressing to the final, and if there was any lingering doubt it was quickly extinguished. As France committed players forward, Morgan raced onto Rapinoe’s through ball and clipped deftly beyond the advancing Sapowicz to seal the result.
As if there were any doubt as to whether or not she was having a great game, Le Sommer fired over the bar in the dying minutes after a cut back from Thomis, effectively delivering the coup de grace for the French.
As Sundhage’s players celebrated in a manner that only Americans can truly pull off – a celebratory post-match huddle – Les Bleus were left to ponder what could have been had they not self-destructed in front of goal. France can take heart from the way in which they dominated possession, demonstrating far greater technical proficiency than their opponents, but ultimately that will be scant consolation for a side who should have got so much more from the game.