July 9, 2011

France Advances to Semis on Penalty Kicks

France and England battled through 120 minutes of tough soccer, without settling a winner. And after all of the nailbiting anxiety of 120 minutes, the penalty kick faceoff offered even more drama. But in the end, France prevailed by a 5-4 margin on penalties and advanced to the semifinals for the first time in their history.

Elise Bussaglia became the French hero, scoring in the 88th minute to draw France even, when it looked like time would run out on them. Late substitute Eugenie LeSommer knocked home what proved to be the winning penalty kick as English captain Faye White would hit England's final kick off the crossbar, in a heartbreaking finish for the veteran English defender.

One would have to say that the better team won this match as France were certainly more dominant for much of the game. However, one had to feel for an English team that was only minutes from wrapping up the match in regulation and led on penalties 3-2 with only two kicks per team left.

By the time the overtime came around, Kelly Smith was barely able to walk, let alone run. Fara Williams was hobbled as well and Ellen White had run herself nearly into the ground. Karen Bardsley appeared to injure her shoulder, although it did not appear to affect the game in any way.

While France held an advantage in play throughout most of the game, it was England that had a chance just seconds into the match. Karen Carney played a perfect ball through to Smith, who dribbled around French keeper Celine Deville. But Smith's attempt from a bad angle was blocked by Laura Georges and France had averted early disaster.

In the 25th minute, Marie-Laure Delie sent the ball to Gaetane Thiney who struck a beautiful volley that was heading inside the right post, but Bardsley made a diving save to keep France off the board. Bardsley nearly got caught off her line in the 37th minute and Louisa Necib's free kick from 35 was headed on target. Bardsley had started forward and had to back up in quite a hurry to tip the ball over the bar.

France continued to create chance after chance, with Necib putting a shot over the bar, Sandrine Soubeyrand shooting wide, and Bardsley making a leaping catch of a corner kick at the back post. Camille Abily also had two attempts that missed their target in the first half.

Meanwhile, England rarely threatened after the chance in the opening seconds. The first half ended scoreless.

The second half continued the same pattern as France consistently pressured and outplayed the English. Delie had a chance from 14 yards on the right side and put it just high and wide of upper right corner of the net. Thiney sent one right at Bardsley just minutes later.

England finally came close in the 54th minute. Rachel Unitt sent a cross from the left wing and Jill Scott's header went just outside the left post. It may have been a sign of things to come for England.

In the 59th minute, Rachel Yankey sent the ball up the left side to Scott, who cut between French defenders Laure LePailleur and Sabrina Viguier to the middle. With open space in front of her, she dribbled to just outside the top of the box and seeing Deville off her line, drilled a shot over the keeper's head, giving England a 1-0 lead.

Play got a little contentious in the 64th minute as Sonia Bompastor took what quite frankly appeared to be a dive while fighting with Kelly Smith for the ball. Smith took exception to Bompastor's acting abilities and after conversing with one another with faces about two inches apart, Smith gave Bompastor a shove. Things settled down and soccer continued.

France continued to offer most of the offense in the match as Delie put one over the crossbar from 15 yards out on the right side. In the 69th minute, Elodie Thomis crossed one from the right wing and it appeared that Bompastor might be perfectly placed on her back post run, but Smith was able to touch the ball away at the last possible second. Bompastor later put her free kick from 22 yards off the wall and over the goal.

France nearly equalized in the 76th minute as a long ball was sent out of the French backfield to Thomis who had a step on the defense. She dribbled to within 12 yards at a steep angle, but Bardsley was able to push her shot away and England were able to block the rebound and clear the ball out of trouble.

Substitutions will certainly be one of the most talked about aspects of this match. Bruno Bini elected to replace Louisa Necib, who had perhaps been France's best player in the tournament, with Sandrine Bretigny in the 79th minute.

But Hope Powell's decision to replace both outside backs in the 81st minute will surely attract some scrutiny. Apparently she was concerned about the toll that French pressure had taken on the English defense and wanted to get fresh legs in to kill the final ten minutes. But she brought on two relatively inexperienced players to replace two solid veterans, bringing in Steph Houghton and Claire Rafferty for Alex Scott and Rachel Unitt. Later in the match, with Smith and Williams in pain and struggling to continue, I'm sure Powell would like to have had one of those subs back. Powell later made a very solid substitution, putting in Anita Asante for Rachel Yankey.

The substitutions nearly proved fatal in the 85th minute as Thomis got behind the left side of the English defense and in on Bardsley from the right side. Thomis attempted to go near post, but Bardsley punched the ball wide. England had temporarily dodged a bullet.

But just when it appeared that England might survive, Sonia Bompastor hit a serve into the English penalty area. The ball landed at about the penalty spot with Delie and two English defenders fighting for the ball. Delie was just able to push the ball back to Elise Bussaglia who teed up a shot from 22 yards. She could not have hit it more perfectly, as her solid strike hit the high off the inside of the left post and behind Bardsley, who had no chance on the shot. France had drawn level with just a few minutes remaining in regulation time.

It appeared that it would take a miracle for England to make it through the overtime with Smith barely able to walk, Williams limping, and Ellen White nearly gassed from continual running over 90 minutes. Bardsley and Faye White also were injured, but somehow continued on as England tried to hang on for all they were worth.

But in spite of all that, England had the best scoring opportunity of the first overtime. Smith flicked a ball onto Ellen White who was through on the right side, but her shot sailed just wide of the net.

France then dominated the second overtime, sending shot after shot at Bardsley, but somehow couldn't score. Eugenie LeSommer, who subbed in to start the second overtime period, was particularly dangerous in the final 15 minutes, sending a shot over the crossbar in the 116th minute. But LeSommer's time had not quite come yet.

England managed to make it through the 2nd overtime and forced the game to penalty kicks, where their rapidly tiring team had a better chance.

France opened the penalties, sending Camille Abily to shoot first. Her shot was hit to the left side, but did not have great pace. Bardsley guessed right and made the save. The next five attempts were converted, with Smith, Carney, and Stoney scoring for England and Bussaglia and Thiney converting for France. In the 4th round, Sonia Bompastor placed hers perfectly into the left side drawing France even 3-3, but with England having a shot in hand.

Second half substitute Claire Rafferty stepped up to take the fourth try for England and put her low shot wide of the right post. Things were now even with one kick left for each side.

LeSommer was up next for the French and placed her shot lower right, easily beating Bardsley who had guessed wrong. Next up for England was England's captain Faye White. White hit a hard shot which caromed of the top of the crossbar and over. For France, it was a thrilling victory and a berth in the semifinals. For England, it was a heartbreaking defeat in a match that they were so closed to winning.

France will now play the winner of the Brazil-United States match on Wednesday. Except for their defeat by the Germans, the French have been dominant in their other matches and will certainly be a force to be reckoned with as the World Cup heads into its final week of action.