The USA team led by Megan Rapinoe’s brace beat their quarter-final opponents, and tournament favourites, France 2-1 at the Parc des Princes, in Paris. Wendie Renard nodded in the consolation goal for the hosts. The defending champions, USA, will now face England in the semi-finals.
There was as much intrigue on the pitch as there was off it in the build-up to this encounter.
We take a look at the tactical battles that led to USA's win over France:
Crystal Dunn vs Kadidiatou Diani
The last team to beat the usually insurmountable USA women’s football team was France, earlier in the year. France’s deep early crosses and through balls played in between the channels exposed chinks in USA’s armour that no one knew existed. A considerable height and pace advantage with cleverly-stitched passes and movement around the edge of the box confounded the USA players. Heading into this game, France was looking to inflict the same kind of damage. But manager Jill Ellis was wise to the challenges France posed.
In a move that in equal parts bemused and befuddled, USA continued to play star left-forward Crystal Dunn at left-back. Imagine if Roberto Martinez played Eden Hazard as a left-back for Belgium in the last men’s World Cup. The reaction to this move drew criticism from close quarters, with followers of USA women’s football team and pundits pitching in with their disapproval.
Yet, it proved to be a masterstroke. This was the very opposite of the grating injustice Roy Hodgson committed on Roberto Carlos at Inter Milan, playing him as a left-forward. This move paid off.
France tasked right-forward Kadidiatou Diani to have the effect a butcher's knife would have on a slab of Gorgonzola cheese, employing her precocious talents and directness on Dunn. It should have been a mismatch, had not Dunn been a generational talent. If it wasn’t for Rapinoe’s heroics, it would have been Dunn the leading lady in this blockbuster showing.
Prior to the World Cup, the USA manager gave Dunn a thought exercise to improve upon her off the ball movement as a shoe-horned left-back. She told her to imagine what she would do if she would find herself in the place her opponent has. A winger on the touchline has one of four options: to cut inside, to knock the ball on along the touchline, to pass back or to pass square. France’s Diani isn’t the sort of player that shies away from a challenge, and rarely does she pass back.
The winger-turned-left-back, Dunn, was able to anticipate Diani’s every move, and had enough pace and presence of mind to nullify France’s long diagonal crosses through the channels.
Such was Dunn’s effectiveness, France’s center-back Wendie Renard had to take charge of play-making duties in the second half of the match, pumping mostly successful long balls out to the wide right channels. Dunn’s competency forced France to try and deploy the quick, trebuchet counters in order to catch USA flat footed further up the pitch.
Dunn was aided by Diani’s questionable passing choices and overall decision-making. Diani did have a couple of moments where by sheer will she was able to get past Dunn, but those plays came to nothing.
Dunn also pulled Diani both ways by being the premier outlet for the USA on counters, dovetailing with Alex Morgan and Rapinoe. Diani covered her flank commendably, but was often relied on her pace to make up for a lack of positioning sense, which did little to calm the nerves of the French defence in the first-half.
Amandine Henry and Gaetane Thiney vs Samantha Mewis and Tobin Heath
France’s captain Amandine Henry tried to pull the game by the straps of the suspender pants. Her usually domineering influence on the ball met with the footballing equivalent of a spanner in the works, in the shape of midfielder Samnatha Mewis. Henry made multiple efforts from outside the box. And some of them were hit with a strenuous force and not so much in the expected direction. The combative Mewis finished the night with most number of tackles, recoveries and duels won. With Julie Ertz, she formed the wedge of the hull that shall not breach.
Unlike their last encounter, Henry and Gaetane Thiney’s patchwork in front of the opponent's 'D' did not work well. Mewis and Ertz were instructed to stay well behind the ball, and drop and mark the space instead of being sucked in by the off the ball movement of the French midfield. The USA defended their box with a line of 5-4-1 in the second half.
Therefore, it went as deep into the late quarter of the second half for France to register their first shot on target. The goal came for a diagonal free-kick, when Henry floated the ball for Renard to head-smash it in the 81st minute. By then France were already looking at their 6th quarter-final exit in the seventh World Cup.
Thiney did thread in a couple of sublime through balls that you would expect from the likes of a pre-Real Madrid Kaka — grounded, scything, diagonal and from a distance of 30 yards — but only for her teammates to waste them.
Tobin Heath carved open France for the USA's second goal in the 65th minute. A turnover in possession saw Tobin gallop down the right wing, and slash in a cut back across the penalty box for Rapinoe’s rapier like side-foot finish. Tobin could have easily finished the night with a hat trick of assists.
Megan Rapinoe vs The President of the USA
Rapinoe, the LGBTQ+ rights social activist and footballer had a fallout with the most powerful man of the free world, the President of the United States. Despite the Olympic gold medal, and the gold medal from the last World Cup, you would think her entire social and sporting career had led up to this match, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
She took to the pitch delegating captain duties to Alex Morgan, to protect the national team from criticism from America’s right wing. This was following Rapinoe vocally turning down Donald Trump’s invitation to her and the national team to the White House.
In the pre-match presser Rapinoe clarified: “I stand by the comments that I made about not wanting to go to the White House, with the exception of the expletive. Considering how much time and effort and pride we take in the platform that we have and using for good and for leaving the game in a better place and hopefully the world in a better place, I don’t think that it will sit well with my conscience. And I would encourage my teammates to think hard about lending that platform or having that co-opted by an administration that doesn’t feel the same way, doesn’t fight for the same things that we fight for. I’ll just leave it at that.”
She didn’t just leave it at that. She went on to score two goals in the most awaited match of the tournament. The first goal was iconic — coming in the 5th minute, she whipped in a low free-kick from the edge of the box, the referee’s free-kick foam kicked up in the air, and the ball went through the legs of two French players and into the net. She stood spread-eagled faced towards the American supporters, allowing them to bestow upon her a legend to go along with her legacy. lavender-dyed hair, steely-jawed, tattooed, politically conscious, unafraid, loud on and off the pitch, and a grafter — Rapinoe is what the modern American hero looks like.
Updated Date: Jun 29, 2019 15:43:14 IST