Could this week’s World Cup semifinals have been more different? United States vs England was delicious: two rivals offering a slick, tactical back and forth that caused time to evaporate in front of us. The Netherlands defeat of Sweden was … cagey, to put it euphemistically.
Those last hurdles are microcosms of what each finalist will be expected to bring to the tournament’s climax on Sunday evening.
The Americans arrive on a run that befits their favourites tag. After surging to an 18-0 aggregate score in the group stages, Spain and resilient hosts France were overpowered in the knockout.
After the victory against Phil Neville’s England, former goalkeeper Hope Solo enthused how it was the finer details that gave the world champions the edge over one of their most vociferous challengers.
“The next goal, if they want to really succeed, is to work on the fine details that make the difference between winning and losing at the highest level,” she wrote of the English.
It’s easy to see how the US gets that edge. The ability of coach Jill Ellis to use Alex Morgan’s pace and power as a fulcrum for building attacks, resisting the temptation to optimise her goal output, is remarkable.
Ditto for Christen Press’s seamless introduction on to the left wing after replacing Megan Rapinoe, and the adaption of goalscorer Carli Lloyd into a presence that slows down the game.
By contrast, the Netherlands have made getting the job done look arduous. Still, get the job done they have. Sarina Wiegman has outsmarted tough challenges from Cameroon and Canada in the group stages before passing the test of 2015 finalists Japan. Lieke Martens’s quality proved the difference. Her shrewd back-heel off a corner was a delight and she repeated the coolness when she slotted in a last-minute penalty.
Against Sweden in Wednesday’s semifinal, the Euro 2017 champions once again rode the swells and waited for their moment. It was a day for the keepers and it took a surprise 100th-minute low drive from Jackie Groenen, a player who had not scored for a year, to settle things.
Against the US, Wiegman will probably try to force a tight game again and look for another clichéd moment of brilliance. Her side’s ability to keep a clean sheet in the opening minutes will probably determine the success of that strategy.
Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis was overjoyed when her side contained the Americans for 35 minutes in a friendly back in May and this tournament has shown why. They’ve never lost a World Cup game in which they scored first and, in this edition, have wasted no time in doing so — their longest stalemate is a ridiculous 12 minutes.
The Dutch are going to have to slow down proceedings if they’re to emerge as world champions. Going toe-to-toe with the American juggernaut will be great for us neutral viewers, but the US team’s experience and nous will always be favoured.