June 10: Matchday 4
Argentina 0 – 0 Japan
Anyone who thinks a 0-0 game can’t be thrilling should be lucky enough to be in the stadium for a game like this. From the opening few minutes until the final whistle, this was full of tension, waves of action, and moments to set your heart racing.
It was also an exceptional team defensive performance, with Argentina putting on a clinic in how to frustrate a possession-oriented team without ever having to resort to the Dark Arts. They hardly committed a foul in the game – in fact it was Japan that was far more likely to commit serious infractions, with Argentina’s Estefania Banini drawing several bookings from the normally restrained Japanese players.
And while this was a defensive approach from Argentina, don’t let anyone tell you that it was a ‘bunker’ or that they ‘parked the bus.’ There is an important difference between those things. The problem with bunkering is that you effectively subject yourself to constant pressure, with very little in the way of failsafes. What Argentina did was far more refined and impressive. They set a solid block, but also continually sending players at the top of the block forward to harass Japan as they attempted to probe the Argentinian defense.
It was a wonderfully controlled performance, one which put enough pressure on Japan to significantly restrain their attacking creativity, without exhausting themselves in the process by consistently chasing the ball. It takes a degree of precision to strike that balance – one that is certainly possible for a club team that trains together every week, but is rare among national teams and virtually unheard of in national teams with the level of resources provided to Argentina.
The heart and soul of the operation was Lorena Benítez, a 20 year old futsal player (!), who only joined the team in March (!!). This was just her fourth time playing for Argentina, but she turned in one of the great performances from any player in the whole tournament. As defensive midfielder, she shepherded play, tracked runs, and covered an almost impossible amount of territory. Watching from high above, it genuinely seemed like she was everywhere. Each time a potentially dangerous attack from Japan was snuffed out, she was there. And as the game progressed, she ranged further and further forward, applying pressure in much more advanced zones.
It would also be impossible to let the game go by without talking about Estefania Banini, who ranged all across the field, providing crucial relief for Argentina by holding possession and disrupting Japan’s efforts to build any serious rhythm. And as the second half went on, and Argentina seemed to grow more comfortable, Banini was a whirling dervish, helping to guide several counterattacks.
For Japan, this was very much a game to forget. They may seriously regret the points they dropped here, but the reality is that things haven’t really changed that much for them. Beat Scotland and they’ll likely finish second in the group. Beat England and Scotland, and they’ll finish first. That was true before this and it’s still true. The question is whether this was a one-off case of nerves, or whether it’s a sign of deeper malaise in the team. My bet is that they sort things out and emerge fine, but it’s certainly something to watch out for.
Canada 1 – 0 Cameroon
This was a peculiar game. In my pre-match writeup over at Stars and Stripes FC, I said that it was a clash between styles, with Canada wanting a tight game and Cameroon wanting an open one. And I suggested that whoever controlled the tempo would therefore have an advantage. The first half was frantic and chaotic, much like Cameroon would have wanted. Except it didn’t produce the goals we might have expected. The one and only tally came on a corner, and all the other chances just fizzled away.
Then, goal in hand, Canada came out in the second half to completely shut up shop. And they pretty much succeeded. The result was a narrow 1-0 that felt like a pretty wide margin by the end, as it seemed less and less possible that Cameroon would be able to get a grip on the game.
On a day when Japan – a team fairly similar to Canada in terms of expectations and ability – failed to get a result against an inferior team, getting the three points probably counts as a major success. But Canada really had no business letting it be as close as it was.
Those two perspectives are going to define this team over the coming weeks. And, as I said on twitter earlier today, as unpopular as it is, this conservative, stifling approach to the game may end up serving Canada very well. It doesn’t produce many goals, but it keeps games close. When they come up against The Netherlands, we’ll get to see whether that tradeoff is worth it.
– Check out my post over at Stars and Stripes FC about what to watch for in the US – Thailand game tomorrow. The US is going to win, but the way it plays out is still potentially pretty important.
– I also wrote up the discussion post at SSFC for today’s games as well.
– I was thrilled to see the level of support in the Parc des Princes today for Argentina – Japan. 25,000 is well below capacity, but is still a huge crowd, and they were into the game. I’ve got more thoughts on that subject, but you’ll have to wait for the next 123rd Minute episode to drop (look for it tomorrow) to hear them.
- New Zealand – Netherlands. Another game with a clear favorite, but one where the underdog has a very real chance to find a result. New Zealand could lose this game 5-0 or could scrape a 1-1 draw. I’ll be particular curious to see if Vivenne Miedema (my pick for the golden boot) can get off to the races.
- Chile – Sweden. Sweden should have enough to stifle Chile, and enough firepower to slice through their defense. But Chile have a top-class goalkeeper, and we’ve already seen what a disciplined squad can do against superior opposition. I’d certainly bet on Sweden here to win comfortably, but it’s no sure thing.
- USA v. Thailand. See my post at SSFC.