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The winners were predictable long before the first match – arguably since the last kick of the 2011 World Cup Final penalty shoot-out. The United States, fuelled by revenge for a defeat in that match they didn’t really deserve, went ahead early in an appropriately entertaining Olympic final and, despite Japan’s best performance of the Games, stayed there. The best tournaments are usually won by either the best and/or the most popular teams. “Team USA” were undoubtedly the first. They were undoubtedly not the second. Arguably they weren’t the best team last night. But they’ll probably regard that as sweeter revenge still for being the better side in Frankfurt last year, yet losing.
Carli Lloyd was inches away from the “perfect” hat-trick (header, right-foot shot, left-foot shot, all three goals in-a-row) – and probably the best of the genre. She came from out of nowhere to convert the metronomic Alex Morgan’s cutback from the left touchline in the eighth minute. Her 35-yard run and magnificent 20-yard right-foot shot in the 54th minute was one of the best goals of the tournament, if not quite the best. And she missed the Japanese crossbar by a ball’s circumference with a well-struck left-footer on 82 minutes. Lloyd didn’t even begin the Games in the starting line-up, coming on two minutes after they fell two behind to France, so no-one would have begrudged her such a hat-trick – except maybe Abby Wambach, who was about to net Morgan’s cross herself (and TV pictures initially suggested she had) and was unmarked waiting for a simple pass when Lloyd decided the net was a better bet.
Wambach was certainly out-of-sorts in her quest for Olympic Gold and the two goals to make her the Games’ top-scorer ahead of Canadian rival Christine Sinclair. She only kicked one Japanese defender in the head as she applied her ‘combative’ approach to proceedings. And when she was booked, it was for a ball-winning tackle which barely merited a free-kick. There’s irony. After the States’ hectic start, it was largely Japan. They struck the woodwork three times, although admittedly they only struck the American bar twice, Azusa Iwashimizu playing a neat one-two with her own post in clearing one dangerous situation. US captain Christine Rampone made a fabulous goalline clearance. Amy Le Peilbet made an easier but no less vital one. And the world’s best goalkeeper (in her own head, at least) Hope Solo made two vital saves – one brilliant, one made easier than it should have been by a tentative finish, both “for the cameras.”
Unsurprisingly, after the physical and emotional rigours of their semi-final, the States didn’t push on as expected after going ahead so early. And they visibly tired at the end of each half. However, Japan were forced from their patient, energy-friendly passing game by the concession of such an early goal. And 75 minutes at an unusually high tempo left them just as tired in the closing stages, when they might have been expected to press hard for an equaliser, after Yuki Ogimi’s close-range finish to Japan’s most incisive move made a game of it again on 63 minutes. Team USA got their monies worth in the penalty (decision) area again (metaphorically, I must stress). Tobin Heath almost caught one of Aya Miyama’s dangerous first-half free-kick midway through the first half (the BBC were not slow to compare this with the penalty the States did get against Canada.
And Rachel Buehler picked up an injury early in the second half when tackling Saki Kumagai (“like something from rugby league,” noted BBC commentator Guy Mowbray, correctly) as they and Solo converged on another well-struck Miyama free-kick. “A free-kick anywhere else on the pitch,” agreed the BBC studio pundits, with former England centre-half Faye White particularly adamant, as if smarting from a similar incident. The general consensus was that there was pulling and dragging at all such set-plays. But not like…that. (The BBC soundtrack was hopelessly out-of-synch, incidentally, which made studio discussions and, even more so, Jacqui Oatley’s pre-match and half-time pieces difficult to follow properly. Still made more sense than Mark Lawrenson, though, as I’m sure you expected me to suggest).
For all their fortune on the night, the Americans were a deal better than Japan over the fortnight, and everybody else, for that matter. They didn’t need the dark and distinctly un-Olympian motivation of revenge to carry them to Gold. Or if they did, they are not quite the side I thought they were. US Coach Pia Sundhage leapt about like a madwoman when her side took the lead, suggesting there was that bit extra riding on this game for the USA. The rueful smiles by Sundhage’s oppo Norio Sasaki and his assistant when Heath’s handball went un-punished suggested an altogether healthier perspective. But a losing one, Americans might add.
Earlier in the afternoon France lost the bronze medal. And without being too harsh on Canada, that is exactly the way to put it. Diana Matheson’s goal with 35 seconds left meant Canada won the Bronze Medal match in exactly the manner in which they lost the semi-final. So it is easy to portray their victory in Coventry as justice partly-served. Yet while it was difficult to argue that they were the better side against the US, it was impossible here. The French tactics mirrored those of their semi-final defeat to Japan. Bore the opposition, and the crowd, to tears before bringing on two of the best players in the squad after about an hour, to inspire the other best players in the squad to dominate the final quarter.
Those tactics failed again, but for different reasons. Japan were just too patient to be bored and were a dab hand themselves at passing the opposition into a stupor. And while Canada were in a stupor already after Monday’s gargantuan efforts, France simply forgot to score…as well as forgetting why they fell behind to Japan in the first place. The BBC’s Steve Wilson said on the hour mark that there was “very, very little to go on” to help choose between the sides. Within about five minutes, France provided plenty to go on. Elodie Thomis set up Gaetane Thiney to hit the post with a right-foot shot before herself striking the top of the crossbar from the edge of the box. Eugenie le Sommer missed the angle of post and bar by inches with a close-range effort on the half-turn.
And full-back Corine Franco topped her increased role in proceedings with a right-foot drive which one camera angle showed travelling goalwards through a ball-width gap between defenders and attackers legs alike. Then a mystery leg – soon revealed to be one of Desiree Scott – appeared from out of nowhere to clear the ball off the line, followed by a mean Dizzy Gillespie impression, as a mightily relieved Scott prepared to defend the next French attack. French domination continued until the very closing moments when the Canadians, having made their own regular substitution of Kaylyn Kyle for Jonelle Filigno at the same time as France made theirs, summoned up about their fourth wind of the week.
Kyle shot one effort wide. But she was more incisive in the 92nd minute, triggering a penalty box pinball which left French keeper Sarah Bouhaddi yards out of position as the ball fell to Matheson. Her shot was far closer to being blocked on the line by an offside-positioned Kyle than Bouhaddi or any defenders. Had Bouhaddi been in position, Kyle would have been offside as Matheson’s shot rolled past. But she (Bouhaddi) wasn’t. So she (Kyle) wasn’t. And the Canadians had to hightail it to North London to receive their medals, alongside their North American “friends.” While the French were left to ponder what they will realise was an impressive fourth place in their first-ever Olympics, though they won’t realise it for a bit.
Back at Wembley, the contrast in attitudes between the finalists was as marked after the game as it was before and during it. Beforehand, Japan were smiling and chatting with their mascots, the Americans looking straight ahead, probably “in the zone” or some such land of the psychobabble. And afterwards, Japan’s squad and coaching staff arranged themselves in a partly-tearful but totally-dignified line to bow to the crowd while the Americans’ newly-distributed t-shirts explained, with trademark modesty, that “Greatness has been found.” Don’tcha just love ‘em? Actually… no. They were deserved Olympic champions, nonetheless.
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I was fortunate to be at Wembley for the final and have to say it was one of the most enjoyable football experiences in my 40 plus years of watching footy. Atmosphere was good, the players conduct the same and the entertainment value was top notch.
Two superb sides who played superb football.