The US has booked a place in the Women's World Cup final after downing a gallant France 3-1 in Mönchengladbach. The two-time world champs will be joined by Japan, who beat Sweden 3-1 to make their first final appearance.
Abby Wambach (left) put the US ahead in the second half
One thing we learnt from Wednesday's semifinals was that if you want to beat the American women's soccer team then you've got to keep your foot on the gas every second of the match - allow them a few minutes to find the net once and they'll find it twice. Another nugget is that Abby Wambach's ability to get her head to a cross in the box is to be feared by defenses the world over.
In all truthfulness, the French deserved a fairer score line than 3-1. It took them nearly half an hour to warm into the game, but they would eventually display the slicker, cheekier and more enterprising play of the two teams. The United States, meanwhile, proved a shining example of how to hang in there, of how to fight to the very last.
The US made the first breakthrough of the match, going a goal up after only eight minutes. The opportunity followed a breakaway from halfway which found its way to Heather O'Reilly down the left flank. The midfielder whipped a grounded ball into the box where Lauren Cheney cheekily poked it past heavy-footed French keeper Berangere Sapowicz.
France maintained pressure on the US goal in the second half
The French seemed shaken, and what they managed to throw at the Americans was easily soaked up at the back. Wambach and Co. managed to get the better of their opponents from corners and, as the half grew older, the French - perhaps lacking confidence, perhaps short on ideas - began increasingly taking the easy option, opting for looping passes and long shots on goal, ignoring that age-old football axiom of keeping the ball on the ground when possible and playing to feet.
Suddenly, the French shot to life almost smack bam on the half-hour mark when Gaetane Thiney had a crack at goal saved by inspirational US keeper Hope Solo. The maneuver seemed to wake the Europeans from their slumber and they began remembering that they, too, were a team full of gifted players and that they, too, could play a flowing, passing game. Now, it was the Americans giving balls away in midfield and opting to go for long shots rather than offloading to a player in a better position. And so it remained until midway through the second half.
The French pressure paid off in the most unusual way in the 55th minute when Sonia Bompastor received the ball on the left and looked to put in an awkwardly swerving cross for an onrushing Thiney in the middle of the box. But the flight of the ball deceived offense, defense and keeper alike, sneaking in at the far post. The goal was lucky, but the 1-1 score line justified.
American fans were out in force for the match
Such is football, however, and the French were unable to make the most of their ascendency. In the 79th minute, the Americans made their opponents pay for some lax defending off a Cheney corner when Wambach was allowed to get a head to the ball at the back post and smack it past Sapowicz. Two minutes later, substitute Alex Morgan was put in on goal off a scruffy through ball and chipped the keeper to push the lead out to 3-1 with seven minutes to play, and so the scores remained.
Swedes fall to Japan
The French can feel disappointed having conceded three goals in a game in which they deserved more. The Americans, meanwhile, now go on to face Japan in the World Cup final in Frankfurt on Sunday after the Asians triumphed 3-1 over Sweden in Wednesday's other semifinal.
The day's second game got off to an almost identical start as the earlier fixture when Sweden's Josefine Öqvist bagged a neat goal in the ninth minute. The striker beat her defender one-on-one and surged into the box to unleash an unstoppable - though deflected - shot past Japanese keeper Ayumi Kaihori.
Sweden bagged the opener within 10 minutes
However, it took less than 10 minutes for the Japanese to respond. Nahomi Kawasumi netted the unorthodox equalizer in the 19th minute after basically colliding with a cross from Aya Miyama from the left. Pushed off balance by her defender, she met the ball with her right shin as she was falling towards the goal line. It crept in between Swedish goalie Hedvig Lindahl's legs to draw the sides level.
Kawasumi wonder goal
Both teams would have been on the receiving end of some encouraging words at the halftime break after promising first-half performances. However as the second half progressed, it became clear it was the Japanese who were ever so slightly edging ahead and looking the most likely to score.
Japan gained the ascendency in the second half
A sequence of poor clearances in the box cost the Swedes, when in the 60th minute Japan midfielder Homare Sawa scored off a lollypop header from close range. Lindahl had leapt off her line to clear a cross but miscued her flying fist.
Swedish hopes of a qualifying for a second World Cup final took a deeper dive only four minutes later when the Japanese pounced a third time. On this occasion it took an act of great skill and precision from Kawasumi. The 25-year-old smashed in a dream goal from what must have been at least 35 meters out after Lindahl had rushed off her line to clear a through ball. But the ball fell perfectly for Kawasumi, who struck her shot sweetly, sending it into the empty goal without a bounce.
The Swedes were then unable to turn the tide, the Japanese successfully frustrating the Scandinavians' late attempts to push forward and pressure the opposition goal. The score ended 3-1 to Japan, setting up just the second Women's World Cup final not featuring a European team.
The Japan team, which will perhaps serve as inspiration for the thousands affected by the disasters which have hit their homeland this year, held aloft a sign following the match thanking their "friends around the world" for their support. Getting this far at the World Cup has certainly been a dream come true for the Japanese, but they should have every reason to believe they can go all the way.
Author: Darren Mara
Editor: Michael Lawton