As the group stage nears its close, we got some more surprises going through, and an old favorite calling it a career at this level. We also got some hilarity, which the last group games always promise but don’t always deliver. Let’s spin this right round!
Groups F and G had a lot of permutations, where seven of the eight teams had a chance to go through. That can lead to some cagey affairs with everyone afraid to make a mistake that will end their tournament. Or you can be Italy, who just decided they were going to moonsault off the top of the ladder, and just see what happened.
It all started in a very Italian fashion. Only needing a draw, they weren’t exactly going gung-ho for the win in their match’s opening exchanges. They had flipped their usual attacking plan, which in the first two games saw left-back Lisa Boattin basically becoming a forward when Italy had the ball. Against South Africa, it was right-back Lucia Di Guglielmo who was the far more adventurous, as Italy were clearly wary of South Africa’s pace in their front line and on the counter.
It made for a dull opening 10 minutes, but it was very Italian to get a gift of a penalty when South Africa left-back Karabo Dhlamini lost her mind and went diving in on Chiara Beccari when she was already contained. It couldn’t be more of an Italian plan to bury a penalty out of nowhere early, and then basically smother the game out of existence for the next 80 minutes while anyone watching it slowly loses the will to live. Which is exactly what Italy did…for a while. But that plan doesn’t really budget for punting the ball into your own net from 25 yards:
Still, a draw was good enough for Italy. Just had to spend the second half playing deep, keeping South Africa in front of them, because Bayana Bayana’s threat is pretty one-dimensional. It’s the interchanging and pace of their three forwards. But deny them space in behind, and South Africa would struggle to create.
Or if you’re Italy you can just go chasing the ball all over and leave yourself open behind your defensive line:
Which set up the kind of feeling one gets watching a young child getting near some piece of electrical equipment in the yard. South Africa hadn’t been able to hold a lead all tournament, blowing two of them against Sweden, and Argentina to turn six points into one. Italy had one goal from open play in two and a half games. The team that can’t defend against the team that can’t score, it’s next on Fox!
Took seven minutes to get an answer:
And back we were. Italy only needing to hold out, get their draw, move on. This is Italy for fuck’s sake. Protecting one-goal leads might as well be on the flag, right? At least a grinning Giorgio Chiellini as he kicks someone and the clock runs down. But as is also Italian tradition (this tourney is teaching us how countries simply can’t run from who they are at their core), at least of late, is having a striker who makes all the right runs, has great touch…and can’t hit a bull in the ass with a snow shovel. May we present Valentina Giacinti:
You can’t miss the bear. And once Italy didn’t bury this, one had a feeling what was next. Want to do some prime ball-watching again? Can’t help yourself, can you Italy?
Three players drawn to Magaia, Boattin doing some Barret Jackman-level defending by marking…the far post? It was hard to tell, and certainly didn’t bother Thembi Kgatlana as she slotted South Africa into the next round.
So South Africa gets through to their first Round of 16, and Italy go home, and the Dutch await. South Africa is the better story, yet another team succeeding despite the obstacles laid in front of them by their own FA. So we don’t want to hear it, Canada.
Not much to see here. Sweden rolled out a lot of the supporting cast, knowing that as long as they didn’t lose by a football score basically, they would win the group. Argentina has been, surprisingly, blunt all tournament and only scored when South Africa got a lead, and as is their custom apparently forgot how their legs worked. In a match they had to have Argentina got all of two shots on target.
This wasn’t very useful for anyone looking to scout Sweden for the USWNT, given that they rolled over so much of the lineup, and never got out of second gear. Sweden will surely be fresher considering how many regulars got to kick their feet up for this one.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament, as Jamaica were able to grind out two draws from the two big bads in this group, France, and Brazil, and also win the one game they had to play without Bunny Shaw in the middle.
Certainly no one saw Jamaica doing what we associate with Italy, and that’s defending for their life and making the opponent simply run out of ideas after about an hour. They did it to France, and though Brazil looked like they might be an all-night rave (is there any other kind of rave?) after their opening match, they looked decidedly limp against the determined Reggae Girlz.
It wasn’t all that scientific. Jamaica pulled back their two wide forwards, played in a 4-5-1, made sure those wingers tracked Brazil’s fullbacks when they tried to maraud forward. Any ball that made its way into the Jamaica box was swatted away by the Swaby sisters. And it went flawlessly.
Brazil just didn’t have layers. They started Marta in this one, with the hopes that her presence — and the fear of making this her last appearance for Brazil — would galvanize her teammates. Eh, not so much. Jamaica squeezed the space between midfield and defense expertly, but after a few attempts in the first half to recycle possession back to the other side of the field to open things up, Brazil basically decided that wasn’t worth it or wasn’t fun or wasn’t in their DNA or something. After about half an hour it devolved into Brazil whipping in some 30 crosses with very little aerial presence. The front line never dropped off to try and stagger things or make Jamaica’s defense make any decisions. Once it got to the hour mark, it was pretty clear that Brazil wasn’t going to find a way through unless something truly silly happened.
Which it didn’t. Jamaica must’ve been exhausted after defending so hard against Brazil and France but gutted through. It’s a sad end for Marta, who certainly deserved better than watching her teammates try to Forrest Gump their way through a wall. But it is a landmark for Jamaica, and should put more lights on just how badly they’ve been run by their FA and hopefully cause some change through shame. Brazil was caught off guard when France got at them. They were clueless how to break down an organized and determined Jamaica. They only looked like Brazil when presented with the nothing that Panama put in front of them. That’s not something worthy of going through.
What a riot. Panama took a shock league thanks to Marta Cox turning into Hela for a free kick (we’ll get to it, promise). And then France quickly discovered that Panama were completely flummoxed by right-back Eve Perisset underlapping on the right wing, and basically created France’s first two goals that got them the lead back.
From there, Panama knew they were pretty much boned, and decided they were going hellbent for leather to get any goals they could take home as souvenirs, and memories. Which meant France had all the space they wanted to score more, but also meant that Panama was getting theirs too, and providing moments like this:
One of those World Cup matches where everyone kind of wins. France go through as group winners, and Panama feel like they provided a moment in their first World Cup after going scoreless in their first two matches.
The aforementioned Cox-to-Hela transformation for this freekick:
Pick that out.
See for yourself.
Only down to the second button, as the pressure was only on for 10-20 minutes. But still immaculate.
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