The 2019 Women’s World Cup: The Quarters – America The Beautiful
France 1-2 United States of America
Make no mistake about it, these are the two best international women’s football teams on the planet right now. This doesn’t make it “the real final.” To say that is fundamentally unfair on the other teams still competing in the competition – especially with two of the quarter-finals yet to be played – and betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of how tournament football works. There remains a visible difference between these two teams and the rest, though. They’re slicker and more fluid. They pass more confidently and are positionally better-organised. But being the two best teams in the world doesn’t necessarily make for the greatest match of the tournament, either. Technically, France and the United States of America are a joy to watch in their own way. But felt at times as though they were cancelling each other out this evening.
The USA came flying out of the traps, with the sort of goal that still looks strange but also feels as though it has also become less unusual in recent times. They were awarded a free-kick on the left hand side of the French penalty area with less than four minutes played which Megan Rapinoe drilled low through a thicket of legs and into an unguarded goal. There was a brilliance about it, of course. The quickness of thought, and threading the ball through a forest of needles to get it in without it touching anybody on the way through. But at the same time, it was wholly predictable. Rapinoe didn’t pull a feint in any way. She sized up what she was going to do, and did it. The other American players, causing havoc in the French six yard area, also played their role.
The French defence, however, should probably answer a question or two about their defending for this goal. It was early and they weren’t settled, but it was still a bad goal for one of the best two teams in international world women’s football to concede. Ultimately, if a low shot from an angle ends up going into the middle of the goal, the defence has to look at itself. This early goal didn’t didn’t do a great deal for the match from the perspective of excitement ,either. Initially apparently shell-shocked by having conceded so early. France pushed forward limply, dominating possession but only able to create a couple of quarter-chances despite hogging more than 60% of possession. It was also the best performance of the tournament so far for the American defence, which looked confident, in control, and assured. Half-time arrived with the sense that the best was yet to come.
They came out flying at the start of the second half, forcing an excellent double-save from the French goalkeeper Bouhaddi before Alex Morgan’s powerfl shot was blocked by a French defender. A few seconds later, a corner landed in the French six yard area like a fox landing inside a chicken coup. But France settled and began to control the ball into a more assertive style of play. The American defence wasn’t initially overburdened, but it certainly brought the crowd, which had spent the first five minutes of the half recovering after apparently having their ears assaulted at half-time by The Birdie Song at 150 decibels, back to life again.
Every forward movement made the noise swell and reverberate around Parc des Princes. But it wouldn’t come. The game settled again, the USA team sucked up everything that France had to throw at them, and the best that France had to show for it all was a tame header from Renard which loops into the goalkeeper’s hands without troubling anybody. Other than that, though, there was again little attacking threat from France, and twenty minutes into the half they paid the price for having had so much ponderous possession without really doing very much with the ball. The USA broke on the right hand side, the French defence found itself pulled out of shape like a broken concertina, and Rapinoe was again on hand to assuredly drive the ball past a defenceless goalkeeper and in to double the USA’s lead.
The pressure started to grow again, as France finally started to loosen up and the USA started to look a little leggy. Then, with ten minutes, the door was pushed slightly open when a carelessly conceded free-kick led to a corner being floated over from the left for Renard to head, unmarked, into the American goal. In that moment, we had a game on our hands. Four minutes later, France had a shout for a penalty kick when the ball was driven against O’Hara’s arm from close distance. She was looking away and her arms were in what looked like a fairly natural position, and the referee didn’t even bother to consult The Evil Eye. But even this late flourish petered out to nothing. The USA’s game management kicked in and the clock ran down without too much significant incident.
France have, it has to be said, not exactly impressed very much throughout this tournament. They blasted South Korea away in their opening match, but have hardly sparkled since then and required penalty kicks to beat both Norway and Nigeria, and extra-time to beat Brazil in the second round. The tournament will be all the poorer for the relatively early elimination of the host nation, though. The USA, meanwhile, faced a huge test tonight and passed with flying colours. They may not face a bigger one in the remainder of this tournament, and quite how England deal with them in the semi-finals is anybody’s guess.