The 2019 Women’s World Cup, Group A: Mountains To Climb

Nigeria 2-0 South Korea

If no-one else, fans of wordplay will have been pleased that this afternoon’s match between Nigeria and South Korea took place in Grenoble, because at least we can say without a shadow of doubt that the Korean team has a mountain to climb if it is to qualify for the second round of this year’s Women’s World Cup. After having lost this match, South Korea will have to win in their final match against Norway to have any realistic chance of progressing to the next stage, and their negative goal difference makes this task all the more difficult. Perhaps, though, we shouldn’t be too surprised by this. They qualified as the fifth placed Asian team and may well have missed out had North Korea, still suffering from a hangover from their 2011 doping scandal, not been unseeded in qualification this time around.

It took half an hour for Nigeria to take the lead, though, and when they did it came through no fault of their own, Kim Do-yeon misjudging a long ball over the top of the defence to stick out and leg and divert the ball wide of her own goalkeeper and into the goal. The good fortune didn’t end there for Nigeria, either. It looked for a moment as though the attempted clearance may have brushed the hand of Nigeria’s Desire Oparanozie on the way into the goal, but repeated VAR viewings failed to be conclusive and the goal was allowed to stand. If Nigeria rode their luck with the first goal, though, the second was entirely of their own making. There had been chances at both ends, including a goal for South Korea that was chalked off for offside, before, midway through the second half, Asisat Oshoala – once of Liverpool but now playing her trade in the Chinese Women’s Super League – broke down the right hand channel, shook off her marker, rounded the goalkeeper and rolled the ball in from a narrow angle to decide the match once and for all.

Nigeria have qualified for every World Cup finals since the first one in 1991, but this was only their fourth win in the finals in twenty-four attempts, and two of those came when they reached the quarter-finals of the competition in 1999. The win gives them a chance of getting through to the next round on merit and it’s in their own hands, although they face the daunting prospect of having to play France in their final group match. South Korea could yet sneak through in a third place spot, but even this already seems all but impossible.

France 2-1 Norway

Some believe that what counts, when the stakes are high, is how you react to the pressure. A minute into the second half at the Stade de Nice this evening, it looked as though France had broken free of shackles that had held them back during a somewhat disappointing first half. They were matched every centimetre of the way by a determined and compact Norway team who defended stoutly, passed crisply, and maintained a compact shape. Less than a minute into the second half, though, a cross from Amel Majri was thumped in by Valerie Gauvin and the whole atmosphere surrounding the game changed, as though throwing off a heavy coat after a long day at the office.

It was a feeling that lasted for eight minutes. A cross from the left-hand side, the most harmless ineffectual cross you ever did see, drifted across the accomplished Wendie Renard who, in a moment during which would you could pretty accurately freeze-frame the point at which her brain melted, tapped the ball over her own goal-line to needlessly – and yes, hilariously – bring Norway level again. The laboriousness of France’s first-half performance sprang immediately back into their rear view mirror. For a while, they were sloppy and careless. Grand boulevards were suddenly replaced by the cul-de-sacs as Norway, freshly emboldened by their unexpected free gift, gleefully regained their composure and got stuck in.

But then they got a bit too stuck in. Inside the Norwegian penalty area, Ingrid Engen and Marion Torrent both challenged for the same ball, but Torrent had both feet off the ground and Engen, who may even have been distracted by this sight, scraped her foot over the top of the ball and into Torrent’s leg, bringing her down. Torrent’s was the first foul, even though she didn’t make contact. That was pure dangerous play. Engen made contact with the ball but didn’t bring it under control, and definitely made contact with Torrent. Surely, though, the first foul was Torrent’s and the kick shouldn’t have been given. After a lengthy delay in front of a baying crowd and with the intervention of Roboref, the penalty kick was awarded. Eugenie Le Sommer, not a player to shy away from the big occasion, converted it.

How you react to pressure is important. But so is luck.