By Simon Evans
LYON, France (Reuters) – Such has been the confidence of the United States women’s team in their ability to win a record fourth World Cup that the major controversy surrounding Jill Ellis’s side has been about their victory plans.
The debate over whether or not they will accept an invitation from President Donald Trump to celebrate their triumph at the White House has animated both sides of America’s political divide.
The defending champions are certainly expected to win Sunday’s final against European champions, the Netherlands, and it would require a major upset for the Dutch to leave Lyon with the trophy.
“The U.S are favorites, we are the underdog – and we are fine with that,” said Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman, whose hopes of pulling off a surprise could be hampered by doubts over the fitness of her star player.
Left winger Lieke Martens, who won the FIFA Best Women’s Player award in 2017, was taken off at halftime in the semi-final win over Sweden suffering from continued pain in a toe injury.
The Barcelona player picked up the injury during a goal celebration in the round of 16 win over Japan and despite the best efforts of medical staff is still far from sure of starting the final.
“She is preparing for the game. We are not sure if she can start, but we are working on it. We don’t know the outcome yet so we will decide tomorrow (Sunday) morning,” said Wiegman.
There have been suggestions that the Americans’ confidence has crossed into arrogance, a notion that both teams have been quick to reject.
American midfielder Megan Rapinoe said that there was a “certain lightness” about their approach which some misinterpret as “aloofness” while Wiegman saw no problem with the attitude of Sunday’s opponents.
“I just think they have a lot of confidence, I think that is OK,” she said.
“They have won a lot and are at the top level all the time and it is a little bit part of the culture I think. That is just the way it is,” she said.
For Sunday’s game to be anything other than a coronation, Wiegman will need her key players to deliver the performance of their lives but, while lacking the power and physical presence of the Americans, the Dutch have no shortage of talent.
The 22-year-old center forward Vivianne Miedema has scored 61 goals in 80 games for her country and is a classic number nine. America’s strong but sometimes rather rudimentary central defenders will need to be alert to her.
The Dutch defense is solid but it is in midfield where the gems are to be found — Danielle van de Donk is the creative hub of the side while Sherida Spitse is adept in dead-ball situations and a tireless grafter.
What is noticeable about the Dutch is that, even in games where they have not been at their flowing best, they have a stubborn ability to dig in and then punish a slip.
“The Netherlands are a tremendous team, they’re European champions, they’ve got a lot of talented players and a coach who knows what she’s doing,” said Ellis.
Ellis will have some tough choices to make in her selection having rotated her squad throughout the tournament and Rapinoe, who sat out the semi-final win over England with a slight hamstring strain, expects to be available.
But Christen Press, the forward who replaced Rapinoe against England, delivered a performance that would merit her keeping her place and she would be tough to leave out.
Whatever choices Ellis makes, the approach is likely to be the same from the Americans – they have scored inside 12 minutes in every game in this tournament, a sign of the effectiveness of their early ‘blitzing’ of opponents.
With Tobin Heath dangerous on the right flank and the diminutive midfielder Rose Lavelle capable of moments of instinctive brilliance, striker Alex Morgan is rarely starved of service.
The hope for neutrals, after a tournament which has drawn unprecedented attention, is that the Dutch can hold firm against the fast breaks of the Americans and then probe their possible weak spots at the back.
Dutch women’s football has enjoyed an impressive and rapid rise under Wiegman and they, too, do not lack self-belief.
“We are really proud that we have done a really good job so far,” said midfielder Spitse.
“Yes we are European champions, yes you can play finals but in the end, you want to play to win the game.”
(Reporting by Simon Evans; editing by Clare Lovell)