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Wednesday, July 13, 2011
France brilliant in defeat

By Roger Bennett
Special to ESPN.com

Fire up the Alex Morgan Barbie Doll, Megan Rapinoe Clairol Nice N' Easy endorsement and the Limited Edition Men's edition U.S. national women's team jersey. America's three-day love affair with women's football has been extended, by popular demand!

No miracles were necessary this time. The U.S. took out a gallant French side using a combination of equally admirable American values: hustle and determination.

Before the game, French 24 news channel portrayed the clash as a virtual mission impossible for the "youthful Bleus" against the "U.S. Goliath." But in the first half, the French David outslugged its opponent, whose goal came from a single first-half moment of quality and coordination.

Louisa Necib
Although France lost to the U.S., players such as Louisa Necib were technically superior to the Americans.

The deft Louisa Necib and Camille Abily, aided by the flank-raiding Sonia Bompastor, took advantage of the slick conditions using their intricate passing patterns to dominate possession and overrun midfield. Thierry Henry once said of French men's legend Zinedine Zidane, "He can do things with his feet people can't even do with their hands." Necib, the finest player in the world to wear blue-eyeliner, skated around the final-third like Zidane in a toupee.

In contrast, the American midfield was uncomfortable in possession, often forcing the ball. Yet its makeshift defense was robust. The back four coped admirably with the powerful threat of Marie-Laure Delie. When they ceded space and time for French snipers to pummel the goal from the edge of the area, Hope Solo was primed for the task. The talismanic goalkeeper played as if the entire semifinal was an audition for a Gatorade ad campaign, clutching the slippery ball with aplomb. On the occasion she was left stranded by a Bompastor blast, the woodwork came to the rescue.

Enigmatic coach Bruno Bini honored the classical French value that it is better to lose with honor than to lack style and win. He boldly benched the prolific yet subdued Delie at halftime, replacing her threat with the speed of Eugenie Le Sommer. As the tempo increased, the U.S. buckled. In the 55th minute, a distracted Solo was caught flatfooted, allowing a Bompastor shot to glide in.

The introduction of the feisty Megan Rapinoe was a game-changer. Headless in her group-stage start against Sweden, the effervescent midfielder was a spark-plug here, the lone American with the confidence to hold on to the ball and counter the French dominance.

Rapinoe's introduction reversed the balance of the game, enticing the French to take a second, more dangerous risk. Bini replaced the steel of Sandrine Soubeyrand with the additional attacking threat of Elodie Thomis. The move backfired within a minute as Warhorse Wambach found room to burnish her legend. Unable to summon a response, the inexperienced French wilted and were helpless as Morgan became America's new darling, delivering the coup de grace with a composed finish.

The U.S. march on to Sunday's final. The French depart with dignity and the consolation that they have provided the tournament with some of its most tactically complex and satisfying soccer. Not unlike that other great "French" side that dominates for great spells with a display of "champagne football" only to have nothing to show for it, Arsenal Football Club.

Roger Bennett is the co-host of Off The Ball and appears on Futbol Frenzy on "Morning Joe" every Monday. He can be reached via Twitter: @rogbennett