QUARTER FINAL: FRANCE 1-2 USA
A Megan Rapinoe brace, for the second consecutive match, set the USA on a collision course with England in the World Cup Semi-Finals. The winger scored early from a free-kick and then converted from Tobin Heath’s cross on 65 minutes just as the French were building a head of steam. Wendie Renard’s header 9 minutes before the end made it interesting but France, who were disappointing in the first half, couldn’t create the opening to force extra time. The defending champions now head to Lyon to face Phil Neville’s Lionesses, and no one should be in any doubt about the levels of physical and mental fortitude that support an undeniable depth of talent in the USA squad.
Coach Jill Ellis made no changes to the side that scraped past Spain in the round of 16, opting to leave Julie Ertz in midfield and Lindsey Horan on the bench – surprising fans and pundits alike. Corinne Diacre chose to match-up in midfield bringing Gaëtane Thiney in for Viviane Asseyi .
Team USA began with urgency. Rapinoe ran through the French midfield and set up Ertz whose shot headed straight into the midriff of keeper Sara Bouhaddi. They kept the tempo high with Alex Morgan drawing a clumsy challenge from Griedge Mbock Mbathy on the left flank near the penalty area. Rapinoe would deliver the set-piece that put the Americans ahead on five minutes; a low, driven in-swinger that eluded everybody, including Bouhaddi, to nestle in the back of the net.
The game settled after a frenetic opening ten minutes. Les Bleues started to get on the ball more and the USA kept a disciplined defensive shape that limited both time and space for the hosts’ key players. It also offered opportunities on the counterattack if France pushed too many bodies forward.
A good move down the French left on 13 minutes ended with Eugénie Le Sommer heading Amel Majri’s cross straight at Alyssa Naeher. Moments later, Bouhaddi had to be quick off her line to deny Rapinoe who was played neatly in behind the backline by Alex Morgan.
France looked hurried. Their passing game lacked some of its crispness. In trying to force the issue, they were frequently wasteful in possession. The Americans remained organised, physical and competitive, set up with a back five at times and looking to break out through Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis; Jill Ellis’s decision to keep Ertz in for Horan was now making perfect sense, dampening Amandine Henry’s impact.
Two minutes of first half stoppage, paltry by this tournament’s standards, yielded three more chances – two for the States and one for France. Crystal Dunn got her distance strike on target, but it didn’t trouble Bouhaddi. At the other end Majri put in a dangerous cross from the left but it bounced off Diani’s shoulder and wide. Then Lavelle countered with a mazy run through midfield, finding Mewis who drove straight at the keeper from 25 yards, when Rapinoe was better placed to receive a pass.
As the teams headed for the changing rooms at the interval, the 45,595 in attendance at the Parc Des Princes would have been hoping for more fireworks in the second half, particularly from the home side.
Straight from the kick off the defending champions nearly extended their lead. Mewis’s low drive from outside the box was well parried by Bouhaddi low to her left, but the stopper was aware of Tobin Heath’s arrival for the rebound and saved with her feet. From the subsequent corner Morgan’s close range snapshot was blocked by Henry.
Early storm weathered, the French got back on the offensive. Le Sommer headed Thiney’s corner wide on 52 minutes. Then Diani beat Dunn for pace and hung up a cross from the right by-line which Valérie Gauvin couldn’t connect with. The ball broke to Le Sommer, but the Lyon striker was off target again, dragging her shot into the side netting.
Thiney, growing more influential, threaded Diani in behind the US backline but Dunn this time had her pegged for pace and cleared. Gauvin then arrived to meet the midfielder’s swirling ball from the left, forcing Naeher into a smart stop on her goal line.
Just when it started to look like all this defending would leave the Americans spent as an attacking force, they doubled their advantage. Morgan split the French defence with a pinpoint pass, releasing Heath into space on the right. The Portland Thorns winger pulled the ball back, missing the onrushing Mewis, but teeing up Rapinoe at the back post, and she made no mistake with a composed finish.
The French were shell shocked, losing all rhythm. With fifteen minutes remaining, the USA thought they’d put the result beyond doubt when Tobin Heath scored, but it was disallowed for offside.
This galvanised the French, both on and off the field. Henry latched on to O’Hara’s loose pass out of defence and bent in a shot from the left that Naeher was alive to. On 79 minutes Thiney and substitute Delphine Cascarino engineered a cross from the right for Le Sommer and the diminutive forward forced Naeher into her best save of the evening, tipping over the bar.
However, two minutes later the US keeper could do very little to prevent Wendie Renard powering her header into the net from Thiney’s left-wing freekick. Game on thought the French fans, but the big reaction came from the Americans who kept their cool, managed possession and ran the clock down. Henry was presented with one final half chance but headed Majri’s corner wide.
The second half made this a memorable encounter with France able to put together two good spells of pressure that forced Jill Ellis’s side to dig in. Unfortunately, these spells came either side of the USA’s deciding goal and here’s the challenge for teams going up against them. The American attack is so good they don’t need to make a lot of chances to score. They can win well playing attractive football, but they can also win ugly. We’ve now seen them under significant pressure for long spells and holding out, fiercely defying criticisms before the competition of both defence and goalkeeper.
Taking on England next – who they drew with in the She Believes Cup earlier this year – America will expect to have more of the ball, but against one of the best counterattacking sides in the tournament. England have suffered periods of sloppiness in every game and the USA have the players to take advantage of defensive errors. But the Lionesses are improving match to match and will look to break at pace, particularly down their right. This should pose a challenge that Team USA hasn’t really had to deal with yet. It couldn’t be set up any better…
Player of the match: Megan Rapinoe, USA (Talismanic, hard-working, dug in to help the group defensively but delivered in those crucial moments in front of goal)