Oh, France. It's been a while since we last met...actually it hasn't been that long (more on that later). But oh, how times have changed. Thursday is the last day of the Olympic women's football tournament, and for the bronze medal, Canada has drawn France, who is coming off a 2-1 defeat to Japan in their semi-final.
Canada for its part is coming off a much more emotional game, which could work either way for them. Are they determined to right the wrongs of the semi final and get themselves a medal, or will they be physically and emotionally exhausted? On the other hand, France has a few hang-ups of their own from their semi-final: they fell behind 2-0, and despite a furious late comeback, in the end, Eugenie Le Sommer's late tally wasn't enough to avoid the defeat and so here we both are.
Now a little more about the French -- they're relatively latecomers to the top tier of the women's game, the 2012 Olympics being their first Games; they reached fourth place at last year's World Cup on only their second trip (they had failed to get out of the Group Stages in 2003), and as recently as five months ago, won the Cyprus Cup over Canada. It's thanks to the work of their coach, Bruno Bini, that their renaissance has begun.
The key to the French defense is the guardian of their ramparts, goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi. Besides their opening game against the Americans, she's only given up 3 goals in the five games. A lot of that though is down to Sonia Bompastor, who is the anchor of the French defence -- being the most experienced of all defenders in the French back, and who will likely be called upon to hold the fort along with Laura Georges and Corine Franco.
In the midfield, France's most experience player awaits -- Sandrine Soubreyand, with her 177 caps (most of all French players, male or female) lurks there. However, she isn't the key person there: instead, look for Louisa Necib, who has apparently been dubbed the female version of Zidane, with her style of play; she has yet to score so far in the tournament, the French have been doing that by committee -- but it could only be a matter of time, and thus Canadians must be wary here.
In the front, France's weapons are many: Gaetane Thiney, Camile Abily, Le Sommer, Elodie Thomis and Marie-Laure Delie. Any of them are ready and able to score, as these five have four of the team's goals so far this tournament (Abily is the only one out of them who hasn't tallied.) As mentioned before, France seems to score as a collective unit, with no one scoring more goals than another; and numerous threats from front to back able to put the ball into the opposition net; something that Delie did during the Cyprus Cup earlier this year.
However, they have only barely shown what they are capable of so far; against the lowly North Koreans the team went to town with five goals, but against the Colombians they struggled, scoring only one. Their quarter final match against the Swedes was a close-fought affair, as was the match against the Japanese. As long as the Canadians can make sure they can keep the affair close, and to keep French chances to a very minimum -- they will have a chance to win.
The team as a unit will be tough to break down, and showed its class against the Canadians during their last major tournament meetings in Germany and in Cyprus; Canada will have to be able to follow the ball, and track every person to the end, and once again dominate possession to starve the French from their preferred style of possession football. This is because France's style is highly individualistic, with many threats instead of just one -- it will mean holding the likes of Thiney and Delie up front, while having the midfield dominate over Necib and Soubreyand.
That meeting in Germany was of course a crushing 4-0 defeat, brought about mainly by the lack of ability to deal with the high pressing game that gave Canada no time to bring the ball out of defence. Against the US, Canada showed an improved ability to counter that and pass their way out of trouble rather than just kick the ball away, and will need to do the same again here.
For Canada, this game will be about redemption, no matter what eventually happens with FIFA and their disciplinary committee -- to win the bronze medal, they will have to play with the same guile to shut down the French, who are just as determined to come away with some hardware. They have the weapons to achieve the goal, and will be looking to use them. Canada can't do anything less but to do the same.