When the quarter-final between England and United States reached its conclusion on Saturday night in Goa, the scoreline was clearly tilted in the former's favour and deservedly so. But one could not help but imagine an entirely possible alternate scenario where there would not have been much that separated the two sides; certainly not three goals. England marched into the semi-finals — their first in this age-group — and they did it comfortably. A Rhian Brewster hat-trick ensured a 4-1 win at the Fatorda. The match, however, was a story about fine lines that separate either side of a chance.
The most important statistic in football is also the least talked about and unpopular one: chance. Much of its unpopularity in football populism is due to the technical term used for it: expected goals. Most other statistics are just information, but the chances created by a team or a player and the expected goals that team should have scored from those chances offer insight. One can look back at the chances created by a team and see how many goals they should have scored. The better the chance, the higher the possibility of it turning into a goal. If a team is not scoring goals, there could be two reasons for it: one, that they are not creating chances (a far more troublesome prospect), and second, that they are not converting the chances they create (a far more frustrating one). United States lost last night on account of the latter and they have only themselves to blame.
After England took an early two-goal lead, courtesy a hungry Brewster prowling dangerously in the attacking third for the kill, USA woke up. Maybe they were caught off-guard, maybe their legs were not warmed enough, or maybe they were overwhelmed by the occasion; USA had a bad start. Two goals down within 15 minutes of a quarter-final is scary. It is enough to make seasoned veterans feel like their legs are made of jelly. These were kids. And yet, USA reacted in the most marvellous fashion. It was as if they started the race with a 15-minute handicap. But they were on their way and a slew of chances, no less than a dozen, came along. By half-time, USA, even on a bad day, should have pulled a goal back. Turns out, things were far worse than 'a bad day'.
England, on the other hand, were having a good one. They had started the quarter-final in the best possible way. They were on the ball a lot and were passing and moving better than their opponents. Callum Hudson-Odoi, playing from the left, was troubling the USA defence with his quick runs into the box. Barely minutes into the game, he made a run into the USA box from the left, shaking off Akil Watts and shooting from close range, only to be denied by an alert Justin Garces.
The USA goalkeeper had already been called upon more times than he would have liked. The least he could expect was his back four to display the same alertness and organisation. They didn't and England made them pay for it. Philip Foden ran into the box from the right, two defenders in tow, and managed to shoot across goal. Garces parried it, but only till an unmarked Brewster who sunk the ball into the roof of the net.
Barely a couple of minutes later, Foden and Brewster linked up again to double the lead. Foden intercepted a casual pass in the midfield, ran some distance and put Brewster through on goal. The forward chipped an on-rushing Garces and found the net again. He could have completed a hat-trick in the space of five minutes when he got another chance, this time from the left. Running into the box, he tried to slot the ball between Garces and the near post, but was denied by goalkeeper. USA were rattled, but not to the point of inability.
The first real chance came through their in-form forward Tim Weah. After 20 minutes of being invisible, Weah suddenly reappeared and dribbled down the left channel and across the edge of the box, finding himself in a bit of space. His shot, however, was just wide off the mark. Considering his form and ability, he should have buried it into the net. Josh Sargent missed an even simpler chance a minute later when he fluffed his attempt on a corner and his limp shot hit the crossbar. He had his hands over his head after the miss — an image that could represent what followed in the remainder of the first 45 minutes.
USA created a slew of chances, some of them involved Sargent again, but all of them watered down to the hard reality of no goal. Curtis Anderson, England's hero from the Round of 16, made a couple of crucial saves at his near post, keeping out vicious shots from the edge of the box from Ayo Akinola and Taylor Booth. USA kept getting good chances near the edge of the English box, but most attempts were off target and did not trouble Anderson. It was frustrating to see a team create so much and be wasteful to such a degree. Had USA scored one before half-time, the game could have changed. They would gone into the break with momentum on their side and knowing that they needed only one goal to pull things level. Instead, they went to the break with their heads down and shoulders slouched on the account of their profligacy.
One could sense that the game was over then and there. How you go into the tunnel at half-time affects how you come out of it during the second half. And it was reflected when USA came out, still disappointed and in disbelief: how had they not pulled a goal back in the first half? And just like that the spell of creativity they had shown in the first half after giving away two goals was gone.
On the other hand, England found that spring in their step again. The relief from not conceding when they could have and the resolve to not provide USA any further chances, solidified their game. Garces was kept busy, as he made saves left, right and centre. But third goal came, inevitably, and Brewster was involved again. He squared the ball in for Morgan Gibbs white, who drilled it low into the net first time, effectively killing the game in the 64th minute.
Sargent finally did pull one back on the night when he tapped in a rebound after Anderson had saved a low shot from substitute Sergino Dest, but it was too little too late. With about 20 minutes left on the clock, the goal might have seemed like the light of at end of the tunnel, but it was only consolation at best. Brewster completed his hat-trick from the spot after he was brought down by Dest in the box a minute from full-time.
USA will look back at the chances they wasted and realise they were undone by their own hands, rather than Brewster's hat-trick. But the scoreline did not deceive. England were deserved winners. They started the match strong and ended it stronger. They go into the semis with immense faith in their abilities, where they will face either Iran or Spain. Brewster, who has been impressive all tournament, took up the responsibility of scoring in the absence of Jadon Sancho, who made his Bundesliga debut for Borussia Dortmund last night. But Sancho would have been keeping tabs. He would have gone back and seen the highlights from the game. He would have realised that his team didn't miss him at all.
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Updated Date: Oct 22, 2017 14:57:18 IST