USA, Sweden favored in semifinals
The U.S. women have an all-time record of 11-1-1 against France
Ten of France's players were part of Lyon's Champions League win
Sweden is the only team that has yet to lose a game in the tournament
With a place in Sunday's Women's World Cup final at stake, here's how the semifinal protagonists match up:
(Wednesday, Noon ET)
The U.S. and France meet for their first World Cup encounter in the earlier of the two semifinals, in Moenchengladbach. Their previous meetings have left the U.S. with an impressive 11-1-1 record, but history, we have found at this World Cup, is out the window. After draining quarterfinals at the weekend -- both teams came through on penalties after extra-time, with the U.S. going almost an hour with 10 players after Rachel Buehler's sending off -- fitness could play a significant part on Wednesday.
The French are pleased to have had an extra day and night to recover from their exertions against England on Saturday. "They've yet to invent a machine that does a better job of helping players recover than simply sleeping and resting," said coach Bruno Bini. It's still difficult to judge how much of an advantage his side will have. U.S. goal-scorer Abby Wambach, who has been managing an Achilles problem throughout the tournament, has not participated in full training this week since Sunday's incredible victory over Brazil.
Both teams will now juggle the pressures of a "fairy tale" journey. "I don't know if you could write a better script," Wambach told reporters. "But we gotta win." France has never come this far in the tournament and had been beaten on penalties in the quarterfinal of the 2009 European Championship. Its success in Germany has played well at home: "A year after the disaster of South Africa, the French women have given the Tricolour fresh color," said Le Monde.
While the French newspaper noted that Les Bleues had been propelled by the "technical brilliance" of Camille Abily, Gaetane Thiney and Louisa Necib, USWNT coach Pia Sundhage has stressed again and again the importance of every member of the squad. She will have to find a solution to deal with the way France's lines shift. On paper, the trio plays ahead of Sandrine Soubeyrand and Elise Bussaglia, with Marie-Laure Delie or Elodie Thomis stationed ahead of Thiney in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but it is exceptionally fluid and responsive.
With five in midfield -- all of them comfortable on the ball and passing in tight, impenetrable triangles -- France could overwhelm the U.S. in the center. On Saturday England's No.10, Kelly Smith, played deeper and deeper to help her side defend; Sundhage's preference for a 4-4-2 formation could put a similar onus on one of her forwards, especially if the calm and disciplined central midfielder Lori Lindsey stays on the bench. Wambach has started to play a naturally deeper game, but there's a strong case for moving Lauren Cheney into Amy Rodriguez's spot. She has shown that she's more than willing to track back from a left-sided position, and has produced some incisive passes over short and long distances.
Sundhage's announcement that Becky Sauerbrunn will slot into the center of defense while Buehler serves her suspension came as something of a surprise -- this had looked the perfect opportunity to pull Amy LePeilbet into her natural position and bring Stephanie Cox in at left back. Though Hope Solo is exactly the keeper you'd want against a side that likes to play teasing passes in behind the defense, France has several willing shooters from distance and Thiney and Necib, in particular, enjoy a one-on-one with a backpedaling defender. When Thomis came on against England, she and Abily tormented left back Rachel Unitt, who was subbed off as Hope Powell sought to preserve her side's lead.
The French fullbacks do not concede ground readily. Up against Sonia Bompastor, Heather O'Reilly will need to be a bit sharper than she looked when she returned from injury against Brazil, but the defense does have its weak spots. Both England and Germany opened up gaps thanks to well-timed runs and well-executed through-balls. The U.S.' never-say-die attitude is priceless, but the team will also want to bring its most creative game along.
(Wednesday, 2:45 p.m. ET)
These two couldn't have reached this stage in more contrasting ways. The Swedes enjoyed a relatively easy quarterfinal against Australia, while Japan worked incredibly hard to beat host and favorite Germany in 120 pulsating minutes in Wolfsburg. Swedish players detect a hint of fate about avoiding Germany, and there must be some heavy legs in the Japanese squad, but this promises to be an absorbing, tactically demanding encounter.
Sweden and Japan have not met at the World Cup since 1995, when Sweden added a 2-0 win to the 8-0 thumping it gave the Japanese at the first FIFA World Cup, in 1991. More recently, in 2007, they drew 2-2, and when the sides played a friendly immediately before the start of this tournament, the match ended in another draw. Japan had taken the initiative but a change of formation (Sweden went 4-5-1, with Nilla Fischer added to the midfield) tilted things back toward the Europeans.
Control of the midfield will be crucial. Japan can ill afford to give Caroline Seger and Lisa Dahlkvist time and space, given that they have Lotta Schelin ahead of them -- the forward is a terrific outlet, and looking more lethal as the tournament grows older. Alongside her, Josefine Oqvist has been a useful alternative to target-striker Jessica Landstrom, running from deeper positions and linking the play. Japan's striking options offer nothing like that threat, but Sweden will still want to shut down Mizuho Sakaguchi -- who was superb against Germany, even if you take in to account Kim Kulig's early departure -- and Homare Sawa. They drive the whole team forward.
Neither side was tipped for the semifinals (Norway was favored to be Sweden's quarterfinal opponent, and has a strong head-to-head record), and a win for Japan would mean a first World Cup final appearance. Sweden has the stronger pedigree, and hasn't really had to break its stride getting to this point: it is the favorite. But Japan's upward trajectory is impressive. This looks far from a gimme.
Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-editor of http://www.retrombm.com/.
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