Tale of the tape: U.S. vs. France
The U.S. and France both enjoyed some stellar moments at last year's Women's World Cup, yet both teams walked away disappointed. It was the U.S. that eliminated France in the semifinals, while the Americans fell agonizingly short of becoming world champions, losing a penalty shootout to Japan in the final. Now the two teams are gearing up again for another shot at winning a major tournament at the London Games. The fact that they have to play each other right off the bat at Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland, means both sides will be focused, lest they get off to a slow start in the three-game group phase.
What's on the line?
In short, control of Group G. Given that as many as three teams from the group could reach the quarterfinals, that might not seem like a big deal. But the group winner will face one of the third-place teams in the quarterfinals, while the second-place finisher will have to play the winner of Group F, likely to be powerhouse Japan. For that reason, each side will be keen to stamp its authority on the proceedings right from the start.
Style and tactics
After dabbling with a 4-2-3-1 for much of this year, U.S. coach Pia Sundhage has reverted to a 4-4-2, and the reason is simple: Alex Morgan has emerged as one of the game's stars and her strike partnership with Abby Wambach, one that has seen them score 20 goals in their past 11 matches, demands a two-striker alignment. The experimentation did have its benefits, though. The U.S. attack is now more varied, with the ability to play direct or combine in midfield through Lauren Cheney and Megan Rapinoe. Look for left back Kelley O'Hara to try to get into the attack, as well.
France has persisted with the possession-oriented 4-2-3-1 formation that it used to such devastating effect last summer at the World Cup. At the heart of France's success is the attacking midfield three of Gaetane Thiney, Louisa Necib and either Elodie Thomis or Eugenie Le Sommer. Necib has become one of the most impressive attacking midfielders in the world, possessing an ability to play incisive passes, as well as threaten the goal on her own. Thiney is also a threat with her highly technical play. France manager Bruno Bini likes to get his outside backs into the attack, as the U.S. does -- and in Sonia Bompastor, he has one of the world's best at his disposal.
Players to watch
For the U.S.: Christie Rampone, Lauren Cheney, Alex Morgan
Even at age 37, Rampone remains one of the fastest center backs in the world, and she'll be counted on to use that trait -- as well as her impressive organizational skills -- to keep the French attack at bay. Cheney's recent move from the wing into a more central attacking role has allowed her to get on the ball more. But U.S. manager Pia Sundhage noted that Cheney is playing almost too much defense, so the midfielder will need to find the proper balance between defense and attack. Morgan's electric speed can stretch any defense, and that allows Wambach to find space underneath. It was her goal in last year's semi that killed off the match.
For France: Wendie Renard, Louisa Necib, Marie-Laure Delie
Renard is a rock in the back, and she'll be counted on to keep France's defense organized in the face of an improved U.S. attack. The aforementioned Necib is the team's offensive hub, and the Americans will need to be wary of her tendency to float in the space between the defense and midfield. Delie possesses an impressive combination of speed and aerial ability, and she will be the player most likely to get on the end of Necib's penetrating passes.
What we can expect?
This is a heavyweight battle fit for a final. Look for France, with its superior numbers in midfield, to try to control the tempo, something it did to great effect during last year's World Cup. Camille Abily and Elise Bussaglia will sit in front of the back four in a bid to shut down Cheney and deny service to Morgan and Wambach. That will make it imperative that outside midfielders Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe and possibly Heather O'Reilly find success out wide and deliver passes from those areas. Also look for France to test O'Hara often. After spending most of her career in attacking positions, O'Hara was moved to the back earlier this year, and while her defending has improved, she still struggles at times with her positioning.
France's confidence is sky-high at the moment. Since losing the third-place match to Germany at last year's World Cup, Les Bleus have won 17 consecutive games and there is a feeling in the French camp that they let the U.S. off the hook in the semi. But the Americans' reserves of self-belief are just as deep, and not just because they ultimately prevailed in that match. The insertion of Morgan into the starting lineup has galvanized the attack and helped paper over some of the cracks in the defense, especially on the flanks. And if the U.S. has one clear advantage, it's in goal, where Hope Solo is among the best in the world.
Follow Jeff Carlisle's reports on the U.S. women's national team as it tries to win gold at the London Games. Here »
This game is evenly matched in so many areas, from defense to attack. For that reason, look for the match to finish 1-1, leaving the two favorites to try to pile up the goals in their two remaining games.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.
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