Updated: Jan 1, 2020
Round of 16: Day 4
Two fantastic games today to finish up the octofinals. Tomorrow is a day off, and then things get even more intense. If that’s possible.
Italy 2 – 0 China
The first half of this game was a huge amount of fun, and could easily have seen three or four goals. Italy were in firm control for the opening 20 minutes and really should have found more than just the one they got. But as the minutes ticked on, China appeared to settle in while Italy started to drag significantly—looking very much like a team that had played four games in less than two weeks, at the tail end of a long and grueling season.
I was particularly impressed with China’s control of play in the middle of the pitch. After an extremely physical (arguably vicious) performance against Germany, they appeared to back off considerably in their other group games. Against South Africa, they showed excellent ball movement and thoroughly controlled the game. But against Spain, they just looked timid. So I was certainly wondering how they would come into this match. What they provided was a good mixture of their strengths. They were certainly physical, but in a far more controlled fashion. During that period of dominance, they simply wouldn’t let Italy get a second on the ball.
Unfortunately for them, they simply couldn’t translate a lot of potential into a final product. Repeatedly, a delightful searching ball would find a Chinese forward in space. She would turn, execute an excellent dribble, and all that was needed was one final incisive touch or quick pass to set up a shot. But instead of doing anything, she would simply stand on the ball, giving an Italian defender time to dispossess her.
To some extent, that’s simply a credit to the Italian defense, which has only grown stronger with each game. The individual players in the backline are good, but the chemistry between them also seems to be growing. It’s a cliché, but the Italian defense is solid and extremely well organized.
At the same time, I also really wonder about the training and coaching system in China. Because watching these players, it’s clear that they have boatloads of ability, and some excellent soccer instincts. But as soon as they need to make the fateful decision to create a chance, they would freeze and the chance would evaporate. When one player does that, it’s possible that it’s simply a flaw in her game. But when many players do the same thing, it feels like a problem in the coaching.
In the end, that’s what took China out of this tournament. They demonstrated a lot of potential, but lacked a coherent structure through which they could apply their ability.
For Italy, the incredible journey continues. They weren’t particularly great today, but it was enough to get the job done. They’ll face a significantly harder task on Saturday in Valenciennes. And given how much they seemed to be struggling with exhaustion here, it’s hard to think they’ll be fully ready to go in less than four days. But a lot of their journey has been improbable.
Netherlands 2 – 1 Japan
One of the finest games in the tournament. Two technically adept teams working at high speed, passing the ball relentlessly, attacking with pace and precision. It was glorious to watch.
But it was also one of the most frustrating games of the tournament. Japan were marvelous and unloaded an assault on the Dutch goal in the second half, but just couldn’t find a way through. And then, in the dying moments, it was the Dutch who scored a heartbreaker, on one of those ‘technically by the rules but come on’ handballs.
It was exceptionally cruel to Japan, who played as well tonight as they have in years. Sugita was incredible. Iwabuchi created chance after chance. Hasegawa scored a wonderful goal. The defense stopped up the Dutch quite well. It was just wonderful all around. But soccer isn’t fair, and so they’re going home.
It felt particularly unfair on Japan because they did everything right coming into this game. Rather than sticking with an aging squad after 2015, they cleaned shop and started fresh. That meant a lot of losses and tough games, but it helped them arrive in France ready and revitalized. Then, after a bad performance against Argentina, Asako Takakura reshuffled her lineup, and turned everything around.
Compare that to the Netherlands who have rested on their laurels and aggressively refused to make necessary changes. They rode Lieke Martens and Shanice van de Sanden to the Euros in 2017, and so they’re sticking with them here, despite extremely mediocre performances. Martens certainly made her contribution today with that lovely backheel goal, but was pretty nonexistent otherwise. And van de Sanden was a caricature of her worst habits. Only once she was subbed off for Beerensteyn (free Lineth Beerensteyn!) did the Dutch finally get some useful action down the right flank – including the play that eventually produced the penalty, which came from Beerensteyn driving in to make something happen instead of sending in yet another helpless cross.
But that’s the way it goes. Sometimes the right approach loses and the wrong one wins. That’s soccer.
For all that they’ve failed to find their top gear (or really, anything past second gear if we’re being honest), the Dutch are through to the quarterfinals. And while my love for Italy knows no bounds, the reality is that this is probably the easiest draw for that round. So even without truly finding their form, they could make the semifinals. Heaven help their opponents if they actually manage to put it all back together.
– We have to fix this ‘any ball that touches your arm at all is a penalty’ rule. We need to fix it yesterday.
– I want to buy an Italy Bonansea shirt, but as far as I can tell it’s basically impossible for me to do so. Fans at this tournament have to stand in lines a hundred people deep to buy merchandise. They aren’t selling alcohol. Matches are listed as sold out, when there are actually plenty of seats available. It sure feels like the soccer elites have left a massive amount of money on the table in the past month. That’s how sexist they are. Just about their favorite thing in the world is money, but it’s still not enough of a lure to get them to properly organize this event.
– It’s hilarious to me how differently the media in England, the US, and France have responded to underwhelming performances from their respective countries. I feel like it says a lot about each country.
A tale of 3 media takes: English media: “They really showed their composure.” American media: “It was a tough game, but they showed their resilience.” French media: “They were garbage and will win nothing if they continue to play like garbage.” — Charles Olney (@olneyce) June 24, 2019
– This piece from Stephanie Yang is important, though unpleasant, reading.
– Jeff Kassouf and Kieran Theivam’s The Making of the Women’s World Cup is out today in the US. If you haven’t already ordered it, definitely do it now. It’s great, and will make for some excellent reading while you wait for more games in the tournament. My full review is here.
– I was busy for most of the day with my conference, which has been great. Picture above is of the Newcastle city wall, built during the Middle Ages. It was breached by the Scots in their invasion during the English Civil War. So that’s fun.