PARIS — This is where the most anticipated match of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup will go down.
Not in Lyon, France’s third-largest city and the site of both semifinals and the championship on July 7, but right here in the City of Light in Friday’s quarterfinal, when the title favorite United States and the host nation and No. 1 contender Les Bleues face off at the Parc des Princes in a battle between the best two teams in the sport.
“I truly think this is the world game for women,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said of Friday’s contest after her team narrowly defeated Spain on Monday in Reims. “I’m sure a lot of people would want it later in the tournament.”
No question about that. But in a way, it’s probably fitting that the match will take place in the iconic capital, which will provide an appropriate stage for a meeting of this magnitude. Because there is every reason to believe that this one will live up to the billing.
That is the case even though neither the Americans nor the French were convincing in the round of 16. The former advanced only after a controversial late penalty kick, the planet’s top-ranked side failing to generate a single shot on target from the run of play. France, meanwhile, needed extra time to get past Brazil, and might not have moved on at all had defender Griedge Mbock Bathy not raced back to clear what would have been a sure goal away at the last possible moment.
However it happened, here we are. The potential for a France-USA encounter in the last eight has been a near-constant talking point since last December’s draw. But while many viewed the matchup as inevitable, it’s rare when things pan out exactly the way everyone expects in sports. Upsets happen all the time. That’s why we watch the games.
So as fair as it is to wish that this tilt had been for the right to hoist the trophy, it’s hard to complain too much about the timing. Judging by the soaring ticket prices, fans certainly don’t seem to care.
“This is what everybody wanted,” a downright giddy Megan Rapinoe said when asked about the looming spectacle. “This is one of the biggest games that you could dream about as a kid.”
Whoever emerges at Paris Saint-Germain’s famous stadium will surely do so with enough momentum to go on to win it all – that is, if they’re still in one piece when it’s over. For while these are the two most skilled teams in the competition, Friday’s match promises to be a war of attrition as much as an all-out attacking bonanza.
Les Bleues no doubt noted how Spain was able to frustrate the Americans by kicking lumps out of them whenever the opportunity arose. The unexpected physicality from what was billed as a technical-but-hardly-imposing foe unnerved the champs. France, on the other hand, is perhaps the only opponent that matches up on even terms with the big, strong and fast United States.
That athleticism was on full display during a friendly match in Le Havre back in January, when France beat Ellis’s squad 3-1 to snap its 28-game unbeaten streak. And while it’s true that Ellis didn’t use her strongest possible lineup that day, that lopsided result – the visitors were held scoreless until stoppage time – has to serve as a psychological touchstone for the French.
For the U.S., the scare against Spain may have provided a needed reality check. “This was extremely important looking forward now to France,” said star forward Alex Morgan, who was fouled repeatedly by La Roja. “It showed a little bit of what we might see [against] France.”
Morgan revealed that she and her teammates had “of course” watched France’s slugfest with Brazil, as they had the hosts’ three group stage games. And despite that early-year upset against them, it also gave the Americans a sense of what to expect when it matters most.
“We’ve seen that they’ve struggled at times,” Morgan said of France’s performances this month. “We’re going to have to look at that and pick apart the weaknesses they’ve showed.”
By all accounts, the U.S. is relishing the challenge.
“So many times when we play in big games, it’s actually when I get more excited,” Ellis said. “It means more, it matters more, there’s more at stake. And that’s why you do this.
“What a showcase it is,” she added. “Let’s go for it.”
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