Sunday, 30 June 2019

Sweden end Germany hoodoo to advance to women's World Cup semi-finals

By Alistair Hendrie

Sweden are through to the women's World Cup semi-finals, banishing the German ghost in a manner so fearless it bordered on cavalier. Sweden hadn’t overcome Germany at a major tournament since 1995 and Sweden’s Chelsea defender Magdelena Eriksson, speaking before the match, said her country were determined to gain revenge for defeats in the 2003 final and the 2015 round of 16. Peter Gerhardsson’s charges advanced with a direct approach this time around, but it wasn’t without peril.

Before Sofia Jakobsson’s classy finish and Stina Blackstenius’s poached winner, Lina Magull put the Germans ahead, contorting her body to score a sumptuous half-volley. The Germans dominated a breathless period of added time too, Sara Däbritz and Marina Hegering both almost levelling. The Swedish goalkeeper, Hedvig Lindahl – who was nearly dispossessed during a madcap dribble in the first half – typified the mayhem and was all at sea when the Germany substitute, Lena Oberdorf, headed wide from close-range on 87 minutes.

That said, Swedish were decent value for their success and were never likely to go through without a hiccup here or there. Jakobsson evaded a slack German back-line, latching onto early long balls. Kosovare Asllani, dropping into midfield, hustled back loose passes. Blackstenius, who could have scored two or three, dribbled with intent around the “D” and exacerbated the chaos in Germany’s rear-guard.

But it was Sweden who were the slowest to start. Magull shot straight at Lindahl, Svenja Huth threaded in through-balls and Lindahl cleared from danger when roaming into a disaster of her own making. Magull’s opener was sublime. Cushioning Däbritz’s pass by the penalty spot, the Bayern Munich midfielder swiped the ball out of the air with an athletic half-volley. Her set-up and conversion, in one movement, were as quick as a flash. A goal of the tournament contender, for sure. 

Would Swedish heads drop, given that only two countries had beaten them more times than Germany? Would Sweden lose all hope against opponents who hadn’t conceded a goal in this World Cup? Not so. The Blagult equalised within six minutes, Jakobsson escaping a creaky defensive line to fire across Almuth Schult. The 29-year-old took her goal skilfully but Die Nationalelf allowed a single hoof to travel over 60 yards and bounce before it reached Jakobsson.

From there, for the rest of the opening 45 minutes, Sweden flourished. Aslanni robbed Carolin Simon in the final third. Blackstenius almost profited from Caroline Seger’s punt over the top. Every time Sweden lofted a ball high into the early evening Rennes air, Germany’s minds scrambled and their shape crumbled. Schult sprinted off her line in panic to clear another ball forward.

Germany needed half time. Such was their luck, straight after the restart, Blackstenius’s rebound put them behind after Schult parried Fridolina Rolfö’s downward header. It was an untidy effort, shanked into the roof of the net, but the Linkopings striker couldn’t miss from six yards out.

The 23-year-old, who opened her World Cup account against Canada in the second round, appeared rejuvenated by her tenth international goal and could have earned a brace, but she clipped low and wide after an industrious and jinking foray forward. The teams paused for a second cooling break on 75 minutes, and Germany thrived in the commencing act.

Their manager, Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, had thrown on 17-year-old hope Oberdorf on the hour, shifting Alexandra Popp further forwards. Make no bones about it, Germany were throwing everything upfield. Oberdorf missed a guilt-edged header. Lindahl burst to the edge of her area to mop up Eriksson’s backpass.

Surely an equaliser beckoned. In the six minutes of additional time, Däbritz bolted a first-time shot at Lindahl, while Hegering headed over having outfoxed Hanna Glas. She couldn’t attain for her earlier error and with that, the German ghost would be confined to horror stories of the past.

Follow Alistair Hendrie on Facebook and Twitter, and see more of his Women's World Cup coverage here

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Liang and Cameroon must be reprimanded after farcial women's World Cup scenes

By Alistair Hendrie

By the time Cameroon's Takounda Engolo slammed her studs into the ankle of England's Steph Houghton on Sunday, the underdogs already trailed their women's World Cup second round tie 3-0 and the Indomitable Lionesses had lost their heads. Referee Qin Liang only booked Takounda after consulting VAR, and it spoke volumes that Jonathan Pearce, commentating for the BBC, said Liang was wise not to show a red card simply because it would have enraged the Cameroonians to breaking point. Cameroon had relinquished control. So had Liang.

Questions must be asked of Liang after she allowed Cameroon's players to strop, complain. and make a mockery of the spirit the World Cup should be played in throughout the match. When Liang awarded England their second goal via VAR, her grip on the game crumbled as Ajara Nchout and Gabrielle Onguene berated the referee and initiated a team huddle, delaying the restart by at least three minutes. Liang declined to book any Cameroonian players despite their lack of discipline. 

As the chaos continued, the Chinese official then used VAR to rule out a Cameroon equaliser for offside - a questionable decision in itself. Nchout, who scored the "goal", tearfully stormed to her head coach Alain Djeumfa, crossing her arms in the air, as if pleading for Djeumfa to take the team off the pitch in protest. The dissent was bad enough; the time-wasting was embarrassing to watch. Liang's decision? No booking for Nchout, regardless of another five-minute interlude. 

Moving forwards, how FIFA reacts to Liang's lack of authority and unwillingness to punish players should set a benchmark for standards of officiating. When Switzerland defeated Serbia 2-1 at the World Cup in 2018, referee Felix Brych was sent home after the Serbian FA complained about his performance to FIFA. At least Brych's plight shows FIFA are willing to penalise poor showings.

Still, FIFA would be wise to act tactfully with Liang, take her into a quiet room, fan the flames, but remind her of how players can't be allowed to throw tantrums and protest excessively. She shouldn't be castigated just yet, and dumping her out of the tournament would be an overreaction, but she needs to improve. After all, on Sunday her decision-making, control of the game and communication with players left a lot to be desired. 

Cameroon, too, should face the consequences of their actions. The tie with England descended into a tragic comedy when Nchou broke down and that was before Onguene's unwarranted rant at Liang after Takounda took out Houghton. At times it appeared as if Cameroon were refereeing the contest themselves, such was the extent of their time-wasting and arguing. 

Cameroon, playing in their second consecutive World Cup second round, ought to expect a fine for failing to control their players. With the visibility and popularity of the women's game at an all-time high, Cameroon set a poor example with their unsporting conduct - they disregarded any sense of professionalism and respect. 

In another blight on the World Cup in 2018, FIFA docked the Moroccan FA £50,000 when Morocco striker Nordin Amrabat shouted "VAR is bullshit" at a camera after Spain denied the Atlas Lions with a VAR-assisted leveller. In that case, you'd think Cameroon would earn a similar punishment. Theirs wasn't one instance of dissent either; it was incessant arguing, it was multiple refusals to play on - and this, remember, lasted for most of the match.

FIFA should use this as a chance to do the right thing for the good of the game. The organisation seems to be all for clamping down on inappropriate socks in football, so you'd hope they'd temper inadequate refereeing once more and shut down insolent players while the world is watching.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Tyson Fury dominates Tom Schwarz in two to keep Deontay Wilder rematch alive

By Alistair Hendrie

Tyson Fury kept his side of the bargain on Saturday night, destroying Thomas Schwarz in two rounds in Las Vegas to keep a rematch with WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder simmering in the pan. Fury’s co-promoter, Bob Arum, told reporters that a repeat of Fury and Wilder’s thrilling draw in 2018 could surpass the $600m generated by Floyd Mayweather against Manny Pacquaio in 2015. A wise comment given Fury’s skills, entertainment value and charisma.

Entering the ring to James Brown’s “Living in America” - of course not forgetting his Apollo Creed shorts, hat and robe - Fury was the star of the show on Saturday and Schwarz, the outclassed German, was just a footnote. The British fighter exhibited a lovely jab, scintillating head movement and spiteful combinations. He’d already bloodied Schwarz’s nose badly by the time he folded the underdog in two with finishing smacks to the body.

The Wilder return was all fans, journalists and broadcasters wanted to ask about after the contest and according to Arum Fury will be out next for a final tune-up on September 21 or October 5. Wilder must do his own part by defeating Luis Ortiz again – reports suggest they could renew hostilities in September.

Indeed, while Arum also mentioned Wilder-Fury 2 would take place in Las Vegas, Team Fury should tread carefully when choosing their next opponent. They need a name, a dance partner who will give them a problem to solve. Still, Fury’s backers know Wilder 2 would be huge for Tyson's bank balance and legacy and they would be foolish to risk it all by throwing him to a young, hungry wolf such as Trevor Bryan. That can wait, and remember Fury is only 30.

How about a meeting with Robert Helenius? The Finn, whose craft and guile handed him the moniker “The Nordic Nightmare”, has won his last three and could earn the largest payday of his career against “The Gypsy King.” The 35-year-old is known for his defensive talents and ability to throw opponents of their game. He wouldn’t be the most exciting adversary, though. Leftfield options could be Carlos Takam, the imposing Cameroonian-Frenchman, or Tomasz Adamek, the Pole who is already known to the US public but was ended in two by Jarrell Miller in October.

First of all, Wilder has to overcome Ortiz. Many felt their previous encounter should have been stopped when Wilder was out on his feet under a hail of Ortiz gunfire in round seven, but the American survived and earned the knockout in round ten. It was telling, then, that Wilder tweeted: “All my controversial fights must get dealt with ASAP” when announcing the rerun with Ortiz. If that’s the case, Wilder-Fury 2 becomes an even greater possibility.

Read more of Alistair Hendrie's writing on combat sports with his Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain