The 2019 Women’s World Cup: The Semis – Oranges Squeeze Through
It was tight, it was tense, and the football was very, very high quality indeed. The second semi-final at the 2019 Women’s World Cup was exactly the game that we expected it to be, and it’s definitely unfair that successive generations of Dutch players have been labelled with expectation based on our reflex reactions when we see those famous orange shirts. But the Netherlands, the biggest, most explosive story in European women’s football over the last five years or so, won’t be worrying too much about the preconceptions of others this morning as they prepare for their first Women’s World Cup final appearance, another giant leap forward in their dizzying recent ascent to the very top of the game.
Two well-organised teams with strong defences were never likely to set the tournament alight, and the first half was a cagey affair with the best chance coming eight minutes from the break when a Sweden corner led to a few moments of panic in the Dutch defence which resulted in Van Veenendaan, the Dutch goalkeeper, blocking Hurtig’s shot from close range. Otherwise, the two teams jabbed at each other without really landing a punch of any great significance. Half-time arrived – complete with a light show which made the BBC’s half-time analysis look as though it was coming from somewhere near the middle of the Milky Way – with the feeling that this was a match which would loosen up more as it progressed.
Ten minutes in came another chance for Sweden. Van Veenendaan’s punch from a corner kick was weak, and the ball eventually fell to Fischer, whose low shot seemed perfectly placed for the bottom corner until the Dutch goalkeeper got down and fingertipped the ball onto the inside of the post, from whence it bounced out and, amid a sea of bodies, somehow to safety. Van Veenendaan wasn’t the only goalkeeper on high alert, though. Barely three minutes after the Swedish chance, a Dutch corner resulted in a header from Miedema which thudded against the Swedish crossbar. Only a replay confirmed that the Swedish goalkeeper Lindahl got the slightest of flicks onto the ball to divert it a crucial half-inch upwards.
Such a match being pushed into an extra thirty minutes probably benefited the United States of America more than it did either of the teams taking part last night. Nine minutes in, however, the deadlock was finally broken when Jackie Groenen surged forward from midfield and, after some nice passing interplay from her team-mates, swept a low shot across Lindahl and into the bottom corner of the goal. Despite a frantic few seconds before half-time in extra-time, when it briefly looked as though Kosovare Asllani might have been fouled for a penalty kick – she hadn’t – and ninety minutes of parity between the two teams, the Dutch had finally compelled their will upon the game in the first extra fifteen minutes.
The second period of extra-time saw the Netherlands happier to sit back and allow Sweden come at them. It was a winning gamble, with a visibly tired Sweden team unable to capitalise on the amount of possession they had and turn it into clear, goal-scoring chances. With a couple of minutes to play, there was a scare for Sweden when Asllani fell awkwardly after challenging for an aerial ball and, after a lengthy break, had to be taken from the pitch on a stretcher. This resulted in the unusual situation of fifteen minutes of stoppage-time requiring seven minutes of stoppage-time, but it seldom felt as though this was going to be any threat whatsoever to the Dutch team. They’d ground Sweden down and worn them out. The final whistle came without Sweden having even been able to create that one chance that losing teams so frequently do when chasing a game.
So, the two best teams in this tournament will meet in Sunday’s final in Paris, then. The Netherlands have been this World Cup’s stealth team. Roughly a billionth of the energy expended on analysing the USA team has been spent on the Netherlands, but they have won every game they’ve played in this tournament with the laughable idea that this was somehow the “weaker” side of the draw somewhat undermined by the calibre of teams they’ve had to be beat in the knockout stages. Japan and Sweden are long-standing stalwarts of women’s football, whilst Italy, who they beat in the quarter-finals, were surprisingly strong in the group stages and had sailed past China in the second round. European champions two years ago when few had predicted it, the Netherlands now have an opportunity to complete one of the quickest ascents to dominance that the game has ever seen. The USA remain formidable opposition, of course, but the holders should not be considering Sunday’s match to be little more than a coronation just yet. Devilishly difficult to break down and packed with attacking talent, the Netherlands are plenty capable of causing a surprise on Sunday afternoon.