After one-and-a-half sensational semi-finals, I feel like a killjoy. Despite the wonderful football played – at least as much by the losers as the winners – my thoughts were of refereeing decisions at Old Trafford; of penalties given (to the United States) and not given (to Canada); of yellow cards not shown (to Abby Wambach). And of history being made; the four minutes stoppage time signalled, during which the States scored their winner of the seven-goal thriller and which the referee ended after three minutes and 25 seconds, with Canada ready to launch one last attack. Yes, that’s right, too LITTLE stoppage-time allowed at Old Trafford. One shudders to think what Alex Ferguson would have made of that.

Despite the above (to which I will return once I’ve given the actual football its due), it was easier to make a case for the United States deserving their place in Thursday’s Women’s Olympic football final than for their opponents Japan. USA were as close to their best as they have been all tournament, pushed there by an out-of-this–world display from the Canadians but creating enough chances throughout a magnificent second-half to make it impossible to imagine Canada holding onto a lead for any significant time. Japan were fortunate that opponents France put in no display at all for 50 minutes, by which time they were two-nil down and seemingly facing Mission Impossible IV to score twice against the, until then, unbreachable Japanese rearguard. Yet France could have, should have and on any other day would have won, in extra-time if necessary.

BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce was properly scornful of the liberal interpretations put on “shots on target” by Olympic football statisticians. But 27 shots to four in France’s favour accurately told the story of the second-half at least. The first-half was a non-event – those describing the match as a classic weren’t ignoring it, they’d just forgotten about it already. It was as bad as the goal separating the sides at the end of it. Pearce had spotted “a bit of clutching” in the penalty area as Aya Miyama drilled a 32nd-minute free-kick towards it. Unfortunately French keeper Sarah Bouhaddi didn’t join in with the clutching as the ball came towards, and through, her hands before being bundled home as scrappily as she could within the laws of the game at about the third attempt by Yuki Ogimi. The drilled free-kick into the box was Japan’s best attacking idea, largely because it was about their only one. The “Barcelona of the women’s game” they are called, by lazier pundits, because of the patterns they weave in midfield. But none of that fancy stuff created anything so bold as a shot on goal.

And the drilled free-kick worked its dubious magic again two minutes after half-time, Mizuho Sakaguchi heading home while her marker Sandrine Soubeyrand appeared, live, to be ball-watching. Replays showed she was doing precisely the opposite – running towards goal with her back to the ball. Either way, she was out of position and France were on their way “out of the Olympics,” according to Pearce, who momentarily forgot that the third-placed match actually means something in the Olympics. Then French coach Bruno Binni made two substitutions in ninety seconds, just before the hour. And…absolutely…everything changed. France had responded to Japan’s second goal with some livelier play, although playmaker Louisa Necib, the supposed Zinedine Zidane of the team, was still disappointing a semi-besotted Pearce.

Apart a shared Algerian background, Necib had done nothing remotely Zidane-esque – maybe she was planning to headbutt the Japanese Marco Materazzi in extra-time. But even she was galvanised by French substitutes Camille Abily and Eugenie Le Sommer. And where Japan’s defending could have been excused as patiently waiting to hit the opposition on the break, as they did so effectively against Brazil in the quarter-finals, suddenly it began to resemble the panic of a team beginning to be over-run, with French shots on target suddenly having meaning rather than merely being a technical statistic. Japanese goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto superbly saved a well-struck half-volley from the now-active Necib. But Le Sommer gave her no chance from a similar position when she volleyed home Elodie Thomis’s cutback from the right touchline with fourteen minutes left.

And France’s comeback seemed complete when Le Sommer was sent tumbling by a clumsy Sakagushi tackle in the penalty area three minutes later – “she’s won a penalty” Pearce shrieked, which was unintentionally harsh on Le Sommer, who was clearly clattered. Elise Bussaglia sent Fukumoto as far the wrong way as any keeper could be sent by a penalty. And just as you expected the ball to bulge the net, it just kept going. But so did France, with an even greater intensity. Ogimi took advantage of France’s late change to a 0-0-10 formation to speed unchallenged towards goal, only to hit the outside of the post when she got there. But it was a rare journey from right to left across the TV screen. And even as the Japanese substituted players and non-used substitutes clambered down the steps from the bench to join in the victory celebrations, Fukumoto had to make one last block as Wendie Renard somehow got a shot away in another chaotic goalmouth scene. “Tomorrow morning they’ll realise what an opportunity they missed,” Pearce said, over pictures which clearly showed that they realised already. And it seemed France would have no chance of lifting themselves again for the bronze medal match. But anything they felt after the game, the Canadians were about to feel more.

Mention classic semi-finals in major football tournaments and, depending on your age, men’s games such as West Germany’s defeat to Italy in 1970 and their win over France in 1982 spring to mind. USA/Canada will go down in history alongside them. There was the sort of intensity you’d expect from a game where the ‘prize’ for losing was a 1pm kick-off on a Thursday in Coventry. Commentator Guy Mowbray seemed convinced from the start that the game would be physical and could boil over into something more. And two free-kicks well inside the first minute seemed to bear that out. But Canada were disciplined and strong in the face of huge early American pressure…and the number of 50-50 calls going the States’ way (along with the occasional 30-70 call). And their opening goal, a superb passing move finished off with skill and composure by striker Christine Sinclair, was a rare foray towards the Stretford End. The Canadians were naturally more confident after that, while still giving up regular chances to the off-radar Wambach and others. And if Canada getting to half-time one-up wasn’t exciting enough, the football itself was really starting to flow.

Bubbling under the surface was the referee’s display. Like most other Olympic refs, the Norwegian Christina Pedersen had liberally used the advantage law (“good for the crowds but not good for some people’s shins,” noted BBC co-commentator Lucy Ward, correctly). But certain slow-motion replays showed which way the 50-50 incidents were going – “that could have gone the other way,” noted a faintly sceptical Mowbray. USA didn’t really need the help, especially when Canada’s defending of corners proved so helpful to the dynamic Megan Rapinoe. She had already peppered the Canadian box with dangerous crosses and found the net with a 53rd-minute corner, via HG Wells’ Invisible Man’s sister at the near post, and Sinclair choosing the maddest of moments to leap over the ball. Notions of Canada collapsing in the wake of this calamity were quickly disabused. And they soon led again, Sinclair heading her second from a pinpoint accurate cross by strike partner Melissa Tancredi, herself becoming a dominant personality after having the nerve to headbutt Wambach’s fast-moving forearm in one particularly intense battle for possession.

The States were really jolted into life by this and the irrepressible Rapinoe scored the best, and most photogenic, goal of the match within three minutes, thumping the ball in off the post from miles out. “Surely they’re not going to concede another?” asked Mowbray, surely echoing the thoughts of most viewers. We were surely wrong, as Sinclair completed her hat-trick with a powerful, well-placed header. And if the Americans were to avoid their first-ever failure to reach the Olympic final, someone had to, as they would say themselves, step up to the plate. Christina Pedersen was that someone. Canadian keeper Erin McLeod was penalised for holding onto the ball longer than six seconds, a law which had clearly not been enforced during this Olympics…or even during this match. Maybe Pedersen had warned McLeod, who had taken her time releasing the ball more than once. But the free-kick was a surprise…and a golden opportunity, given the shooting boots Rapinoe was wearing. Rapinoe failed to take her chance, thumping her shot against Marie-Eva Nault, who had no time to get out of the way but had the presence of mind to keep her arms tight to her body so as not to concede a penalty for deliberate handb… ah… hang on.

It was an awful decision. And some of us had flashbacks to an incident just after USA’s first equaliser, when a Sinclair cross rolled down Rapinoe’s arm as the American tried to clear the ball. Wambach despatched the penalty with the class and confidence that the great players have. And even the onset of tiredness failed to halt the flow of chances at either end, Wambach looking particularly knackered as she slid the ball wide of an open goal – a chance she would have taken earlier in the evening. Crikey, US keeper Hope Solo even made a save, in a tournament where she’s had either nothing to do or could do nothing about the shots on her goal.

Canada might have been expected to collapse in extra-time. But although the States should have won the game in the 120 minutes, Canada resolutely did not collapse. “There could be a real story here,” noted Mowbray at the changeover, his journalistic instincts undiminished by the events unfolding before his eyes. Wambach hit the bar in the 119th minute. All the talk was of penalties after that – Mowbray had primed us long before that there had never been a penalty shoot-out in women’s Olympic football. And after the match, BBC3’s Jake Humphrey admitted that he had called Wambach’s late header as the States’ last chance. It wasn’t. And there still hasn’t been a penalty shoot-out after Alex Morgan’s looping header halfway through the 123rd minute reminded us all why Brian Clough advised us never to fall in love with small goalkeepers.

There was “a minimum” of four minutes of stoppage time, though, plus whatever Pedersen decided to add on for the goal celebration – about which McLeod was lightning-quick to remind her. So there was time for one last twist, which would not have been a complete surprise in this match. And as Sophie Schmidt picked up possession with thirty-five seconds left on the clock…Pedersen blew for full-time. Amid the understandable struggle to find words to describe such a match, neither Mowbray nor Ward noticed the clock. But as the Americans celebrated, I couldn’t help but remember the decisions which simply hadn’t looked right; the corners and free-kicks not given to Canada, the booking not given to Wambach for a penalty box lunge at the workaholic Schmidt (“I said accidental…only Wambach knows” – Mowbray).

I know that makes me a cynical killjoy, though. USA could have had at least one other penalty themselves and they had more possession, so Canada had to make more tackles, which meant more chances that free-kick decisions would go against them. Pedersen could simply have had a bad game…she DID have a bad game. AND… USA were the better side in a fantastic, fantastic match. “The best Old Trafford will see in 2012,” noted Humphrey, correctly. You could probably add a few more years – past and future – to that. Whether the USA can overcome the physical and emotional carnage of the occasion and overcome Japan in the final in just three days’ time remains to be seen. But if anyone can, they can.

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