RO16: ITALY 2-0 CHINA
Italy equalled their best performance at a Women’s World Cup beating China 2-0 at Stade de la Mosson to progress to the Quarter Finals. China were punished for sloppiness in possession at the beginning of each half, allowing Valentina Giacinti to put the Italians ahead in the 14th minute and then failing to close down Aurora Galli who thumped in from 25 yards at the start of second period.
Italy began the brighter and thought they’d taken the lead on 10 minutes. Giacinti got on to Cristiana Girelli’s through ball, finished well, but was correctly ruled offside.
Undeterred, Giacinti would start and finish the move that did put the Italians in front just inside the quarter hour. She seized on a loose pass from Wu Haiyan and found Barbara Bonansea in field. The playmaker twisted her marker and threaded Elisa Bartoli in behind the defence. Peng Shimeng was smart off her line to smother the full back’s attempt, but the ball broke to Giacinti following in and she made no mistake.
The Steel Roses responded well to going behind and started to find their feet from an attacking perspective. Wang Yan’s snapshot was tipped over by Juventus keeper Laura Giuliani following good build up play by Li Ying and Wang Shuang.
But China remained susceptible to the counter with Italy getting in behind their high defensive line repeatedly. The best chance fell to Valentina Bergamaschi, who was brilliantly denied by the acrobatic Peng at full stretch.
The Asian side were crisp passing through midfield but lacking a quality final ball. They did eventually get one right, Wang Shuang played Li Ying into space on the right, but was denied by Bartoli’s last ditch block. Lin Yuping arrived first to meet the subsequent corner but headed straight at Guiliani.
Head Coach Jia Xiuquan made a change at half time bringing on Yang Li to beef up the Chinese attack. But it was Italian substitute, Aurora Galli – on for injured forward Girelli – who extended Le Azzurre’s lead on 49 minutes, fizzing a low drive past Peng from 25 yards.
With it all to do, China committed more bodies forward, resuming the pattern of the first half – tidy on the ball, but making poor choices in and around their opponent’s penalty area. The Italians meanwhile continued to defend stoutly, looking to break at speed. Wang Shuang had two half chances, curling the first high and wide from distance; then unable to get enough power on her second effort, inside the box, slipping as she played the ball.
Opportunities came and went. Han Peng half volleyed at Giuliani from 20 yards. Substitute Song Duan cut inside from the right but dragged her attempt well wide. Then Zhang Rui got in front of her marker from Song’s cross, but her glancing header spun past the upright.
As the match ticked into stoppage time and with China’s legs seemingly gone in midfield, the Italians tried to put a more impressive edge on the score line. Giacinti, still tirelessly plugging away, scuffed wide of Peng’s right-hand post. Guiliano tried her luck further out but couldn’t hit the target either. Then the two combined with Guiliano sliding Giacinti in, the striker cutting back on herself and drawing a smart save from the Chinese keeper.
Italy Head Coach, Milena Bertolini, had spoken modestly before the tournament about getting her side out of the Group stages. They’ve smashed that target using just sixteen players to date which suggests the Coach knows has got faith in her preferred line-up. Whether lack of rotation will come back to haunt them in the latter stages, only time will tell. Italy have been very tough defensively, they are increasing in confidence and sharing out goals amongst the group – Dutch fans should not be expecting an easy game against them in the last eight.
Player of the match: Sara Gama, Italy (Could have gone to anyone of the excellent Italian back line but Gama’s concentration levels were phenomenal throughout)
RO16: NETHERLANDS 2-1 JAPAN
Two goals from left winger Lieke Martens ensured the Netherlands’ passage to the quarter finals, and a tie with Italy. A below par Leeuwinnen survived being played off the park for long patches by a dynamic and talented young Japanese side that would rue its profligacy in front of goal. Martens opened the scoring with a clever back flick from a corner. Yui Hasegawa equalised just before half time finishing off a wonderful passing move on the edge of the box. Japan then poured on the pressure in the second half but couldn’t convert their chances. As the match ticked into stoppage time Saki Kumagai was adjudged to have handled in the area and Martens stepped up to simultaneously seal the tie and break Japanese hearts.
Sarina Wiegman made one change to her line up, replacing Anouk Dekker with Stefanie van der Gragt. Japan changed three components of the attack that couldn’t break down England in the group stages, bringing in Yuika Sugasawa, Yui Hasegawa and Narumi Miura.
In front of thousands of travelling Dutch fans, the Euro 2017 champions started well. Daniëlle van de Donk and Lieke Martens worked the ball down the left and, when the cross arrived at the far post Vivianne Miedema’s effort was well blocked by Aya Sameshima.
They took the lead in the 17th minute with a moment of split-second improvisation. Sherida Spitse swung a low corner in from the left and Martens flicked the ball off the outside of her right boot, through Sugasawa’s legs and inside the back post.
Sugasawa nearly redeemed herself immediately, latching on to a slide rule pass and hitting her shot against the post, following a rapid interchange between Mana Iwabuchi and Miura.
It was a moment that galvanised Asako Takakura’s side, who started to find their rhythm and tempo. When the equaliser came on 43 minutes, it was a goal of pure quality, manufactured from years of emphasis on close control, quick passing and clever movement. Hina Sugita swung in from the left and snapped the ball to Sugasawa in the ‘D’. The centre forward laid it off to Iwabuchi, who took a touch and threaded the ball through to the onrushing Hasegawa. She beat the offside trap and clipped the ball over Sari van Veenendaal into the top left-hand corner.
Within sixty seconds the Netherland’s had almost retook the lead. Shanice Van de Sanden found Miedema in the box and the Arsenal hotshot sidestepped Saki Kumagai before hitting a tame effort which Ayaka Sameshita saved comfortably.
Coming out of the interval the Netherlands seemed to have regained some of their composure, looking more like themselves in attacking areas. Spitse’s 25-yard freekick beat the wall, but not Yamashita who got down well to her right and palmed away.
But once again Japan’s neat and tidy playing out from the back forced the European champions to do more chasing down than they would have wanted, and this started to create gaps. Sugasawa blasted over after good work down the left from Iwabuchi and Sugita. In the next sortie, Nakajima cut in from the right and hit a curling effort that forced van Veenendaal into a good parry.
Then a ball in from the left flank was headed on by Sugasawa, Iwabuchi got there first and backheeled to Hasegawa but the winger couldn’t repeat her first half heroics and fired wide.
Going into the final quarter of an hour the Dutch were on the ropes. Iwabuchi blasted into the side netting on 76 minutes when she should have crossed. Moments later, she played Sugita into the box. The midfielder took an age to make up her mind but eventually cut back on to her left foot and hit a languid strike that crashed off the underside of the crossbar.
There was more good wing play to enjoy from Hasegawa on the left as she hung up a cross to the far post; the ball broke to substitute Yuka Momiki and van Veenendaal’s reactions had to be at their absolute best to parry. From the subsequent corner Sugasawa was in the right place but couldn’t get enough purchase on her volley.
On 82 minutes, Miura’s attempt flew over the bar after another good combination, this time with Momiki. Then Sugasawa and Iwabuchi worked an opening but the latter couldn’t test the keeper.
With full time approaching, and the prospect of extra time, it was starting to look like one of those nights where such wastefulness in front of goal would be costly for Nadeshiko. And, sure enough, the Dutch got their one opportunity to smash and grab a result.
Sarina Wiegman has made good tactical switches throughout the tournament to positively impact results. And indeed, it was substitute Lineth Beerensteyn that worked an opening for Miedema, whose shot was blocked by Kumagai’s arm. The VAR check for handball was a formality, although the defender will feel it a harsh decision, given that Miedema was no more than a couple of feet away when she connected.
Martens, who’d had a very quiet night overall, sent the keeper the wrong way – cleverly adjusting her strike as Yamashita shifted her weight to her right foot. Two goals in a low-key performance for the Barcelona winger – exactly the kind of finisher Japan needed!
There was still time for the Asian Champions to win a corner and generate full-on goalmouth panic for the ladies in orange, with Kumagai at the heart of the scramble, but the ball just wouldn’t break for Japan to get a clear sight.
So, the Dutch move on to a quarter final with Italy having played well below their best, but with key players stepping up in the heat of a few vital moments to get the result. Japan, on the other hand, will have to chalk this one up to a mixture of inexperience and lack of composure. But, one thing’s certain: when they are on it, they are brilliant to watch. They have a relatively fledgling group, that delivers more than the sum of its parts; that has outplayed both England and the Netherlands, but just lacks that clinical edge to ensure they punish teams when on top. For now, Asako Takakura’s squad will have to be filed under ‘one to keep an eye on’…
Player of the match: Sari van Veenendaal, the Netherlands (Two absolutely crucial stops to key Japan out in the second half).