Football does work in its own mysterious ways. A month ago, at the onset of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, eyebrows would have been raised if anybody even suggested that the Netherlands would be taking on Sweden in the second semi-final at Parc Olympique de Lyonnais. But then, it is football and the cauldron of surprises that the current edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup has offered, the reigning European champions facing one of the most dogmatic footballing nations isn’t too far-fetched a scenario.
Sweden are the lowest ranked FIFA member remaining in the competition and will be the conventional underdogs against a star-studded Netherlands team, but regular observers of the women’s game are aware of the punch the dynamic Swedes pack. It has been anything but easy for the Blagult to punch their tickets for the semi-finals, considering the fact that even their qualification to the World Cup hinged on quite a few lucky results in their qualifying group.
Peter Gerhardsson’s side were placed in a difficult group alongside the holders USA, but they quietly went about their business in the tournament. It did take the Swedes some time to get going against Chile in their World Cup opener but they secured comfortable victories against both the South American nation as well as minnows Thailand. The loss to the much superior USWNT notwithstanding, Sweden has been a model of efficiency in the knockouts so far.
Canada are far from being pushovers in the international stage and the Swedes’ 1-0 victory in the Round of 16 was down to perfect execution of their gameplan. Germany were a completely different matter, yet the Swedes took everyone by surprise when they came back from behind to defeat the Germans 2-1.
Netherlands will be their toughest test so far. The reigning European champions have been far from pioneers when it comes to women’s football, but the fastest growing sport in Holland boasts of an eclectic mix of players who ply their trade in some of the biggest clubs in Europe.
Be it Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema or Barcelona’s Lieke Mertens, their all-round offence is the Dutch’s primary strength, backed by a set of skillful midfielders.
Beating New Zealand, Cameroon and Canada was light work for the Oranje Leeuwinnen. Impressive were how they blew out both Japan and Italy in the knockouts. While Japan are no longer the powerhouse that won in 2011 or made it to the finals in 2015, Italy’s easy surrender was particularly surprising.
“We talked a lot about not playing our best football in the first couple of games here,” Miedema said ahead of their last-four game. “But I think the problem was that we didn’t really have the chance to properly enjoy ourselves on the pitch. We are very happy with what we’ve achieved so far, but for us, the journey is not over. We’ve got so close and we’ve finally got back into that flow that we had during the Euros. Now, all we want is to make it to that final,” concluded the Arsenal superstar.
There is no doubt that the Netherlands are the stronger side on paper, but their central defence has remained a cause of concern. The fact that their forwards have been on song have brushed over the fact that the Dutch have a backline prone to casual errors, but if anybody can exploit that, it would be the Swedish duo of Sofia Jakobsson and Stina Blackstenius.
This edition’s quintessential dark horses, Sweden, do not have any appalling shortcomings, producing stubborn displays from their entire unit where they function as a cohesive system ” be it rigorously defending or mapping out counter-attacks to find space behind the opposition defence through their forwards.
“It is going to be a great semi-final and it is going to be fun to see if we can beat one of my favourite countries when it comes to football,” Gerhardsson told reporters ahead of the match, adding that their opponents play the style of football he wants his team to emulate.
If the contest between the US and England in the first semi-final was a battle between two conventional powerhouses of women’s football, Wednesday’s match will be more of a fight for gaining relevance by the two teams in their own countries.
Sweden have not won a major trophy since 1984 in spite of being one of the early nations to wholeheartedly embrace women’s football while the Dutch have faced an even more uphill battle with their Football Association refusing to acknowledge the need for a top league until 2007.
For the players, it will not simply be pride at stake at Lyon, but also the ability to create history. A win tonight will not only ensure a historic contest against the terrific US Women’s National Team who have scaled summit after summit, but it will also be a triumph for relentless dedication.