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Newcomer France will be a challenge for U.S. in Women's World Cup

GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Despite never before reaching the semifinals of the tournament, the French have fast, creative and combative players who can do real damage. France plays the U.S. in the first semifinal Wednesday.

July 11, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer

The French are in unknown territory. In the two-decade history of the Women's World Cup, France has never before reached the semifinals. In its only previous tournament, it was knocked out in the first round.

That puts it at a disadvantage on Wednesday when France has to play the two-time world champion United States in Moenchengladbach, Germany. Stage fright could be a factor.

But the French have the type of players who can do real damage — fast players such as Elodie Thomis, creative players such as Louisa Necib, combative and tireless players such as Camille Abily, and experienced players such as Sonia Bompastor.

Add it all up and the first semifinal of the day — Sweden takes on Japan in the nightcap in Frankfurt — will be no stroll along the Champs-Élysées for Coach Pia Sundhage's U.S. team.

"They're a good side technically and difficult to play against," England midfielder Fara Williams said before the English team fell, 4-3 on penalty kicks, to France in the quarterfinals.

France also can score goals, with eight in the bag so far in the tournament after a 1-0 win over Nigeria, a 4-0 romp past Canada, a 4-2 loss to Germany and a 1-1 tie with England before advancing on penalties.

Marie-Laure Delie and Gaëtane Thiney have each scored twice, and Abily, Thomis, Laura Georges and Elise Bussaglia also have found the back of the net.

Seven of the eight goals have been scored in the second half, meaning that the U.S. needs to be aware that France grows into a game, gaining strength and confidence rather than losing it. France is a patient team, awaiting its opportunity to strike.

As England Coach Hope Powell put it, France "never gave up and kept at us right until the end."

France also presents a danger on free kicks and corner kicks, with several players having the ability to deliver a good ball. Even in defeating the French, Germany found that out to its cost.

"Unfortunately, we didn't concentrate on set pieces, as the two goals we conceded prove," said Germany Coach Silvia Neid.

At the other end, starting goalkeeper Bérangère Sapowicz returns to the French lineup against the U.S. after sitting out the quarterfinal because of a red-card suspension.

France Coach Bruno Bini, 56, has been coaching French women's national teams at various age levels for 18 years, and has been with the senior team since 2007. He has a rapport with the players and with the media, thanks to his easy repartee.

Take, for instance, his talking about 24-year-old Marseille-born midfielder Necib, whose play has been compared in style to that of another French star of Algerian heritage, Zinedine Zidane:

"There aren't many players like Louisa," Bini told FIFA.com. "She can do things you wouldn't even find in an instruction manual for the perfect footballer. Quite simply, she's an artist.

"OK, you could say that sometimes she keeps the ball a bit too much. However, there's so much sunshine when she does touch the ball. I'm always cold, and it warms me up and makes the whole team glow."

That, clearly, is not your everyday coaching quote by any means.

Another reason for France's success — it swept through qualifying play, going 11-0-1 while scoring 53 goals and giving up only two — is that it is built around just one club team, French and European champion Olympique Lyonnais.

Lyon was unbeaten and untied while winning the most recent French league title.

Of the 21 players on Les Bleus' roster, no fewer than 10 play for Lyon, and half of them usually start for France.

That makes the semifinal an interesting challenge for the U.S., which could be riding the high from its own dramatic quarterfinal triumph Sunday over Brazil and could be thinking the French will be easier opponents.

They will not be.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

Jones reported from Ross-on-Wye, England.

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