A few months ago, Richard Farley (who does an excellent job over at Foxsoccer.com, where you can find the suddenly ubiquitous Jenna as well) and I started to predict what was going to happen in the Women’s World Cup.
I had just seen the U.S. get taken apart by England (at least in the first half) in a friendly, saw England had a relatively easy group, and told Richard that England might be able to make it all the way to the finals to face Germany.
(I was never sold on Brazil for reasons that I don’t have time to get into here, but they had to do with disorganization in the federation, etc.)
Richard countered with France. Typical Farley, I thought, pick an obscure squad that no one else was going to look at. France wasn’t going to touch Germany, and had CONCACAF champion Canada in their group. There was no way.
Of course, truth be told, although I don’t like to admit it publicly, Richard is usually correct in these arguments.
And, another truth be told, I hadn’t really done any research on the subject (which is probably why Richard is usually right most of the time, shocking how that works). The more I looked at France, the more I was impressed. There were some curious results (like losing to Holland in the Cyprus Cup in the spring), sure, but it was most certainly a program on its way up.
After going to the finals of the UEFA Champions League in 2010 with a good chunk of the French national team, Lyon won it in 2011 impressively over German opposition (Turbine Potsdam), and by wiping out England’s best team – Arsenal – in the semifinals.
The French women’s league is probably the third best league in the world. Montpellier, which went to the Champions League quarterfinals in 2010, finished fourth domestically – even with French goal scoring machine Marie-Laure Delie leading the way – and didn’t even qualify for the Champions League last year.
You add in a veteran coach in Bruno Bini, a supportive federation, and the World Cup right next door, and you’ve got yourselves a sleeper.
If France finished second behind Germany, it would likely get England in the quarterfinals, and France could take them, which would likely get them Brazil in the semis. And so, I picked a France-Germany final (yea, I had the U.S. losing to Germany in the semis. Sorry.)
And so, here we are, the United States and France in the semifinals. Perhaps we shouldn’t be that surprised. And we certainly shouldn’t think this will be an easy game for the U.S.
Here are the five things to look for in Wednesday’s semifinal (11:30 a.m., ESPN):
1) France’s tactical setup could give the U.S. fits
Bruno Bini began the tournament against Nigeria with a 4-3-3, with Gaetane Thiney and Louisa Necib wide, and captain Sandrine Soubeyrand as a lone holding midfielder.
You may forget this now, but it was an epic failure, Soubeyrand (basically the Shannon Boxx of the French side, a 37-year-old veteran, with 166 caps) was so exposed that she had to be subbed out of the scoreless game at halftime. Delie’s great finish helped France survive 1-0, but they hardly looked like contenders.
Most people in the know thought Bini was going to have to drop Soubeyrand for the pivotal second game with Canada.
Bini switched the formation to a 4-2-3-1, pairing Soubeyrand with Elise Bussaglia in the holding role, and allowing Necib to sit in front of them, with Thiney and Camille Abily in wide positions.
(I’ll stop, sorry.)
The rest is history, France annihilated Canada 4-0, before losing to Germany with some changes to their lineup.
Of note, Bini has also made two changes in the back from the opener against Nigeria. Right back Wendie Renard is an impressive physical figure at 6-foot-1, and scored in the Champions League final for Lyon, but has looked out of place at the World Cup and likely won’t start Wednesday.
However, her defending has been suspect at best, so Bini has replaced her with Laure Lepaiileur, and Ophelie Meilleroux has been dropped for Sabrina Viguier.
Two things should make U.S. fans very concerned:
a) Although they needed a late goal and the game went to penalties, France was by far the better team against England, and for long periods of the game, England couldn’t even sniff the ball. With the possible exception of Japan, France is the best technical team in the world.
b) The U.S. 4-4-2 setup may leave Necib plenty of room to operate in between the midfield and defense. Sweden caused all sorts of problems in the first half by sitting in that hole, and it basically led to both goals, certainly the first one, and you could argue the second as well.
To give a player as technically talented as Necib time to run at your back four is not a scenario the U.S. wants to see too many times Wednesday, and we’ll see how Pia Sundhage tries to adjust.
2) Becky Sauerbrunn will see her first action in Germany
One thing you have to admire about Sundhage, there was little question what would happen when the U.S. advanced and Buehler was ineligible for the semifinals.
Becky Sauerbrunn would step in and take her place. No debating, no “we’ll see”, Sundhage had Sauerbrunn practicing with the first team and the issue was settled. In Sundhage’s mind, why would Sauerbrunn be on the roster if she wasn’t going to use her?
We can debate whether her inexperience (her 11 caps is second lowest among field players on the U.S. roster, and would have been lowest if Lindsay Tarpley hadn’t gotten hurt and Kelley O’Hara replaced her) will be a factor, but Sundhage has shown complete confidence in Sauerbrunn, that will carry over to her teammates, and hopefully to Sauerbrunn in a very big spot.
3) Can the U.S. take advantage of the French inexperience?
One of the things that made it hard to pick France is that there is just no history on the international stage. France did qualify for the World Cup in 2003, and actually tied Brazil on a late goal, but went out in the group stages. Four likely French starters (Viguier, Laura Georges, Soubeyrand, and Sonia Bompastor) were in the starting lineup for that match.
But that’s it, really.
France will compete in the Olympics for the first time in 2012 and never got out of the group stage of the Euros until 2009 when they lost to Holland in the quarterfinals.
The good news for France is that Bini, like Sundhage, seems to instill confidence in his players no matter what the situation. Like the U.S., they were up against the wall in the quarterfinals and had to go to penalties, but showed no panic in either.
4) Will fatigue be an issue?
Obviously, the United States left everything they had on the field on Sunday. Of course, France did as well, but it was on Saturday, giving them one extra day of rest which could be pivotal, as neither team is going to change too much in their lineup at this point.
If you’ve been reading the stuff here all tournament long, I’ve mentioned U.S. fitness coach Dawn Scott more than once, and she’s earning her paycheck in the last couple of days. By all accounts, she’s one of the best in the business, and if fatigue isn’t a factor in this game, she’ll have done a better job than most people will ever know.
(I am a little tired of hearing about Hope Solo’s shoulder and Abby Wambach’s heel, though. It’s the World Cup semifinals. They’re going to play.)
5) A set piece could be the difference
Not to get back to simplicity, but neither team has looked completely comfortable defending free kicks and corners in the World Cup (really, no one has), and with Abby Wambach and Marie-Laure Delie – probably the two best pure center forwards in the world right now (Delie is the third leading French scorer all-time with 23 goals in just 24 caps) – hanging around, it will only take one missed mark and one timely header to turn the tide.
Kirsi Heikkinen of Finland will be your referee
Heikkinen has more of a history with France than the U.S. She sent off goalkeeper Berange Sapowicz in France’s 4-2 loss to Germany (which forced Celine Deville to play the quarterfinal), and was also in the middle for France’s quarterfinal loss (in penalties) to Holland in Euro 2009.
The last time Heikkinen officiated a U.S. match was early in 2010 when they beat Germany 3-2 to win the Algarve Cup in Portugal.
She’s an experienced referee, but so is everyone at this point.
Prediction: United States 2-1
Sweden vs. Japan (2:45 p.m., ESPN)
Kind of a shame that this game is getting overlooked in these parts, but what are you going to do? It’s funny that the knock on both these teams coming in was their lack of finishing. It’s always a dilemma among coaches, when you get in a scoring slump, do you practice finishing more or does that just bring more attention to the problem?
This should be a very good match, and just about too close to call. More penalties?
Prediction: Sweden 1-0