France World Cup Warm-Up: Les Bleues impress but fall to USA
On Wednesday, France played the USA in the final of the Algarve Cup, one of the annual spring-time tournaments that often serve to prepare teams for bigger things in the summer. Having won a friendly against USWNT 2-0 in February, les Bleues went down by the same scoreline in a match that saw them suffer from a long-standing problem. Despite having some key absences, particularly at the back, the attack was blunt and they failed to take their chances – although a fine performance from Hope Solo in goal was also a factor. However, reaching the final in their first appearance in the competition is a positive, as were some of their other performances.
Laura Georges had to pull out of the tournament with a muscle injury, and Louisa Necib is still recovering from the injury she picked up playing against the US in the friendly in February (France won 2-0), so this was a chance for Philippe Bergeroo to try out new players. With Wendie Renard also missing two matches, this included a centre-back pairing of Anaig Butel and Sabrina Delannoy, and with Amel Majri out injured, the same fullbacks started every match, Jessica Houara on the right and Laure Boulleau on the left.
Things got off to a slightly shaky start with a 1-0 win over hosts Portugal; dominant in possession and chances, France struggled to make it through a determined defence until Eugenie Le Sommer headed in from a Claire Lavogez cross shortly after the hour mark. For Portugal, it was a decent attempt at the traditional approach to stymieing les Bleues – keep it tight, sit back, let them get frustrated and over-commit in attack, and then hit them on the break. Ranked 42nd, however, they weren’t quite good enough to pull it off, but the narrow result suggests strongly that this could be a useful template for better teams in the summer.
Much better was the second game against Denmark (ranked 16th), who knocked France out of the last European Championship on penalties in the quarter-finals. France went 4-0 up by half-time with goals from Le Sommer, Camille Abily, Kenza Dali and Lavogez, with Gaetane Thiney heavily involved in the first two, before conceding a late-ish consolation from Sanne Troelsgaard. It looked like France were hitting their rhythm.
The format of the competition (three group games then a ranking match, rather than a knock-out stage) meant that a win in the final game would put France in the final. Standing between them and that achievement were the reigning World Champions, Japan (ranked 4th), who had suffered a surprise defeat to Denmark in their first game.
It was an understandably cagey start, Renard going close with a header, but France mostly reduced to shooting from distance, which goalkeeper Kaihori dealt with well. Japan were displaying not only their usual precise technique and passing play, but also a robust approach, which looked to make France rather uncomfortable. Just before half-time, the defence got themselves in a tangle in the middle leaving Kawasumi free to open the scoring, and the mood was nervy.
In the second half, however, things took a distinct upward turn. Thiney equalised from the penalty spot early on after Kinga brought down Boulleau right at the edge of the area. Abily came on for Elise Bussaglia – and almost immediately had to come off again after being smacked in the face, but was OK to continue – and France started to dominate. This time, they were more efficient, making more incisive moves as in the Denmark game. Thiney set up Le Sommer for a great strike to put France ahead, before getting her second with a wonderful run up the left, holding off two defenders and slotting under the keeper.
There were lots of positives to take into the final, therefore, but with Renard unavailable with thigh-strain, Bergeroo started Kheira Hamraoui as a shield in front of central defence, and Le Sommer on the left wing. France opened brightly, but USA scored in the 7th minute, Lauren Holiday putting in a freekick that was glancing-headered in by Julie Johnston, in what seemed to be their first completed pass in the opposition half. Abily, playing with a black eye and a plaster on the side of her face after the clash in the previous match, took it upon herself to run things in the middle, and forced Solo into a couple of saves, and Le Sommer was tearing it up on the left, but Christen Press scored the second for the USA just before half-time. It was a great solo run from just inside the half, but one which she really should not have been allowed to make. The tracking defenders didn’t make a great effort to stop her, perhaps – naively – assuming she would slow down to allow a teammate to catch up for a pass.
In the second half, Bergeroo tried to boost the attacking threat by bringing on Lavogez and Dali for Hamraoui and Diani, who had struggled on the right. Later, he introduced Marie-Laure Delie for Thiney, who had had difficulties getting into the game in the centre, and France were thrown a life-line as they were awarded a penalty when the substitute was fouled by Meghan Klingenberg. Henry’s effort was well-struck, but not far enough in the corner, and Solo saved. It summed up a frustrating evening for les Bleues, as USA saw things out for the win.
There were also positives to take from the involvement of France B in the Istria Cup, a relatively new (little) sister tournament to the Algarve and Cyprus Cups. They beat Wales (33rd) 1-0, drew 0-0 with Costa Rica (37th) who will be appearing at the World Cup in the summer, and 3-3 with Bosnia Herzogovina (71st), to reach the third/fourth-place match against Austria (27th). They lost 2-1, conceding two in two minutes, before getting one back from the penalty spot. Featuring no players from OL or PSG, this was largely a young team, but with several players with A-team experience (Julie Soyer, Camille Catala, Viviane Asseyi, Marina Makanza, etc).
Bergeroo may also have been keeping an eye on the third competition on the go, as Mexico (25th) and England (6th), both group opponents for the summer, took part in the Cyprus Cup. England won the title with a 1-0 win over Canada in the final, Arsenal’s Lianne Sanderson scoring the goal, and Mexico beat Italy 3-2 to take third place.