|All good things must come to an end and last night at Wembley saw the final game of Woman’s Football for London 2012 with a competition for Gold between Team USA and Japan. Sure, last night’s match was no instant classic in the manner of the US’ hard-earned 4-3 semi-final victory over Canada on Monday, but for tension, excitement and spectacle it ran it close. While the Japan side emerged with an ever-familiar lineup, Pia Sundhage had evidently taken note of the US’ porous defensive record during the tournament, introducing Shannon Boxx in place of Lauren Cheney in an effort to shore up the centre of the pitch.
Straight from the first whistle, this was a match between two true footballing teams. The US positively flew out of the traps, with Megan Rapinoe heavily involved in the early stages and Abi Wambach using her physicality to intimidate the Japanese defense any time the ball came in from wide areas. Such was the US’ early dominance that Carli Lloyd’s 8th minute opener came as no surprise to the near capacity Wembley crowd, Alex Morgan turning Yukari Kinga inside out before producing a peach of a cross that the diving Lloyd couldn’t fail to convert.
Thereafter, Japan came alive. With Rapinoe brilliantly marshaled on the right wing and Alex Morgan and Abi Wambach failing to hold the ball effectively in forward positions, the Japanese midfield began to see more and more time on the ball, culminating in a series of clear scoring opportunities. First Kawasumi beat Hope Solo to the ball and rolled it goalwards only for Christie Rampone to clear off the line; minutes later, Yuku Ogimi’s header drew a breathtaking save from Solo, touching the ball onto the bar and seeing it fall just clear of the onrushing Japanese forward.
If 1-0 at half time looked like a somewhat unfair reflection of the first half, 2-0 after 54 minutes looked terribly cruel. Carli Lloyd may have been the villain of the last major meeting between these two sides, missing her penalty in the deciding shoot out in last year’s World Cup Final, but here she was inspired. Picking her way through the Japanese midfield and with the defense backing off before her, Lloyd unleashed a bullet of a shot from 20-yards which rose sharply leaving Miho Fukumoto with no chance at all.
Still Japan were unbowed and, despite Sundhage shuffling her pack, withdrawing Rapinoe for Cheney just before the hour mark, Japan continued to look the more threatening side culminating in Yuki Nagasato’s composed finish after Homare Sawa’s initial effort was only half cleared.
With the game becoming more and more open, both teams came close in the closing stages first with Lloyd coming within inches of her hat-trick before Hope Solo again produced a game-saving stop from Mana Iwabuchi’s close-range snapshot with mere minutes left on the clock.
Despite continued pressure from Japan through the closing stages and 2 minutes of added time, the US were not to be denied a fourth gold medal in women’s football, holding on to record a 2-1 victory.
And so it finished with the US in Gold Medal position, Japan in Silver and Canada in Bronze after their last-gasp victory over France earlier in the day. To take a step back again for just a moment this was, again, a superb advert for the women’s game. There are many legacies that this Olympic Games may leave – if just one of them is a new-found appreciation for women’s football in the UK, then all involved can feel justifiably proud: players, coaches, organisers and fans alike.
Image from: top http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/olympics/ bottom: http://www.businessinsider.com/usa-japan-olympics-2012-8 (Thanks!)