By Arnie Leshin
Call it soccer or football, regardless of your choice, Wednesday’s Netherlands match with Sweden was an absolute thriller, a tense physical clash between European countries hosted by France.
It was a “heated” fierce tussle in the Women’s Soccer World Cup semifinals at Stade de Lyon Stadium, and win or lose, each had a next stop, a final stop.
But for the Dutch, it was a 1-0 success in extra time, two overtimes, a full 120 minutes in hot and humid Lyon that soared over 100 degrees, that kept it in Lyon to challenge the top-ranked, defending champion USA in Sunday’s final, that booked its ticket to a historic first-ever final.
For the disappointed Swedes, whose only previous setback here had been 2-0 against the USA in the final match of Group F play, they head for Nice to play England Saturday for third place.
But for the Netherlands, it is a new experience after going 6-0, 3-0 in Group E, for this will be their initial time in the World Cup finals. And it was well deserved. They proved to be the better side. They took care of the ball better, were quicker to the ball, played a smarter defense, and had 24-year-old Jackie Groenen to score what became the eventual game-winner.
It came in the first overtime after the seven minutes of saved time kept it scoreless. It was from 30 yards out, a low, driven kick to the far left post past diving goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl. It was Groenen’s third international goal and first-ever in the World Cup. It was a brief celebration for the happy Dutch, for there was still time left in this and a second overtime.
But Sweden spent too much time protesting to the referee and linesmen. It had problems getting away on-target shots, often missing a teammate getting a look inside, often passing up a shot and booting it out of bounds.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands maintained a firm hold. They worked the clock well, smartly, traded in chances to increase the lead by passing the ball on defense to keep possession, and frustrating the blue while keeping the orange fans more confident as time ticked away.
The first half went the way of the Dutch, getting the ball past midfield and lining up shots, but couldn’t get it into the net. The Swedes didn’t have answers, but still kept it at 0-0.
Tension built in the first half of extra time, as physical battles, especially in the midfield, got tougher and tougher. It might not have featured the most creative brand of, take your choice, football or soccer from either side, as a announced crowd of 43,317 had hoped for, but it was an intriguing game of ‘tactical chess’ for sure.
It was ultimately kind to the Orange Lionesses, and now they stick around for a shot at their first World Cup trophy after winning six European championships, the last coming this year, 6-0, against Budapest.
But this semi win was well earned. It came before a packed house filled with blue and orange, where there wasn’t a single person not sitting on the edge of their seats. It was a tactical battle between Sweden and the Netherlands, where one moment of brilliance from Groenen became the only thing that separated the two sides.
With just over 10 minutes left in the second half of extra-time, the Orangeleeuwinnen treated the 1-0 lead with care. They showed how well they wanted to say ‘checkmate’ at the final whistle.
As for the USA, Groenen said: “We’ve watched USA games, including its semi-final game against England. They are a very strong team of course. They’re the USA, after all. Hopefully, we’ll be able to play our own game. Anything can happen.”
On her game-winning strike, “I saw a nice angle. We’ve been discussing this for a couple of weeks now, getting me to be ready for an opening like this. The ball just came really nicely and I thought, let’s do it.”
This was the third time in history that Sweden, which went 5-1, headed to extra time in the World Cup. The previous two times, it ultimately lost, one a defeat to China on penalties in the 1995 quarterfinals, and a 2-1 loss to Germany in the 2003 final. This time it was the third strike and out for it.
The consensus was that this one should go the Swedes’ way, but the Netherlands had other ideas. It was humid, the players sweated through it as time went by, but extra time rewarded the Dutch.
In possession time, the Netherlands held it for 57 percent to 43 percent, 58 percent to 42 percent when temperatures soared into the mid hundreds. They had 15 shot attempts to Sweden’s 11, 4-3 in on-target tries, had a 4-3 edge in blocks, and the Swedes hurt themselves by being called for 24 fouls to 14 for the Dutch.
In yellow cards, it was 2-1 Netherlands. In corner kicks, Sweden booted a dozen to four by the Dutch, and in free kicks, the Netherlands had a big edge, 25-18.
See you again in Lyons, Dutch.