FIFA Women’s World Cup Day 18:


Two penalty strikes for USA forward Megan Rapinoe.

THE USA’s credentials as tournament favourites were given a thorough examination, with Spain running them closer than expected in Reims. It was a hard-fought win that hinged on determination and organisation rather than dazzling interplay, with Jorge Vilda’s side opting to go toe-to-toe with Team USA rather than defend it out. The victory was not without a sizeable dollop of luck either. Megan Rapinoe converted two penalties, given for fouls on Tobin Heath and Rose Lavelle respectively. The first was a straightforward decision; but the second? Well not even VAR adequately cleared it up for most spectators. Jennifer Hermoso’s fine finish for Spain came just three minutes after Rapinoe’s first spot kick, taking advantage of a defensive mix up.       

US Head Coach Jill Ellis made just one change to her line up bringing Julie Ertz back into midfield for Lindsey Horan. Spain recalled Alexia Putellas and Victoria Losada; although Losada would only last 32 minutes after clashing with Sam Mewis.

To everyone’s surprise in the stadium, Spain came out of the blocks quickly and USA centre back Becky Sauerbrunn was forced to put her body on the line to block Patri Guijarro’s fierce drive.

Early scare averted, the Americans took the lead on 5 minutes. Abby Dahlkemper played a long pass out to the right wing, Tobin Heath controlled the ball, cut inside María Pilar León all in one movement and the defender brought her down. Captain for the day, Rapinoe, sent Sandra Paños the wrong way from the penalty spot.

Spain were level in less than three minutes, catching the USA cold at the back. Keeper Alyssa Naeher played out to Sauerbrunn on the edge of the box, but Lucía García was on her in a flash and found Jennifer Hermoso unmarked in the ‘D’. The Spanish number ten kept her cool, got the ball out of her feet and lashed it into the top corner.

Now they knew they had a game on the USA made most of the running for the remainder of the first half. Rose Lavelle’s clever run through midfield ended with a defence splitting pass for Rapinoe but the winger’s drilled shot was palmed away by Paños at her near post. Heath continued to create problems on the right, engineering a cross out of nothing that Spain had to scramble away before Morgan nipped in. Julie Ertz and Rapinoe both had efforts from outside the box but neither tested the Spanish stopper.

After the break the USA looked to apply more pressure. Lavelle played Heath in a pocket of space on the right flank. The Portland Thorns winger got her feet set quickly and drove narrowly over the bar.

Spain were playing some confident possession football, but without significantly troubling Naeher. Their best moment was when Lucía García’s clever reverse pass got Patri into space in the box but she couldn’t pick out a teammate.

Lacking penetration and markedly unable to get Alex Morgan in the game, the Americans tried their luck from distance. Mewis went closest, curling her effort a yard wide of the post from 20 yards.

Then, on 71 minutes, Jill Ellis’s side got the benefit of a decision that was anything but clear cut. Crystal Dunn beat a path down the left and crossed towards Morgan, the ball broke into space and Lavelle arrived just before Viginia Torrecilla, going over as if she’d been clipped. The referee had no hesitation in awarding the penalty. USA striker Morgan retrieved the ball while VAR spent several minutes looking at the incident from every conceivable angle, eventually calling Hungarian match official Katalin Kulcsár over for a second look and then a third look and a fourth…

By the time the referee eventually confirmed her original decision, Rapinoe was back on penalty duty. She placed her her spot kick towards the same corner as earlier and got the same result: the USA back in front. It was a full five minutes between award and conversion.

A string of substitutions followed by both teams, but Spain couldn’t rediscover their earlier rhythm with the Americans successfully breaking up the game, winning a series of free kicks and keeping possession smartly in the corners.

After 7 minutes of stoppage time had elapsed the match official brought proceedings to a close and it was clear that the overriding emotion for Jill Ellis and her coaching team was relief. It wasn’t vintage from Team USA today, but sometimes games have to be won ‘ugly’. France await in the quarter finals and Les Bleues, who will certainly offer a more constant attacking threat than La Roja could muster, will believe they’ve seen some chinks in the Americans’ defensive armour.

Spain leave the competition with their heads held high. They had a real go at the red-hot favourites and have proven beyond doubt that they look a viable and improving force in the higher echelons of women’s international football.

Player of the match: Sam Mewis, USA (A different kind of job was required today against a tricky opponent. Mewis exemplified the drive, stamina, strength and intelligence needed to help her team get the right result.)


Stina Blackstenius (yellow) scores the winner against Canada.

Stina Blackstenius’s strike was the difference between Sweden and Canada in the Parc des Princes. The Canucks best chance to equalise fell to Janine Beckie from the penalty spot, but Hedvig Lindahl made a sensational save at full stretch.

The first half was something of a rather dull chess match with both defences in control and neither keeper tested.

The second period started much more brightly, and Sweden got their noses in front on 55 minutes with their first attempt on target. Linda Sembrandt played Kosovare Asllani in behind the Canadian backline and her pinpoint cross was perfect for Blackstenius who beat Shelina Zadorsky for pace and clipped past Stephanie Labbé.

Canada’s penalty in the 69th minute was prompted by a VAR check after Sophie Schmidt had headed wide. During the build-up Desiree Scott’s snapshot had hit Asllani’s outstretched hand and, while Australian referee Kate Jacewicz needed a couple of looks, she eventually awarded the spot kick.

After all the recent furore about keepers staying on their line before the penalty is struck, Lindahl gave a textbook example of how it’s done, launching to her right to deny Canadian midfielder Beckie.

Sweden had further opportunities to put the result beyond doubt. Fridolina Rolfö fired into the side netting following a rapid burst into the box. Then, from Asllani’s free kick on the left, Nilla Fischer drew an instinctive reaction save from Labbé. Peter Gerhardsson’s side would have a good penalty shout of their own when Lawrence upended Rolfö, but it was overturned by the VAR team who judged that there had been an offside earlier in the move. With four minutes left on the clock, Asllani volleyed goal bound from Eriksson’s in-swinging set piece but the playmaker was denied by Scott who cleared off the line.

Canada made some substitutions to try and change the pattern of the game, but Sweden defended resolutely to book their place in the quarter finals and a date with Germany in Rennes.

Canada always looked like they would be hard to beat at this tournament but never looked like they had enough goals in their squad to reach the latter stages – even with talismanic striker Christine Sinclair, who tonight has most likely played her final World Cup game.

Player of the match: Fridolina Rolfö, Sweden (Had a bit of attacking spark about her even in the quiet first half and looked get at the Canadian back line at every opportunity with some excellent direct running)

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