Football matches are often marked by expectations and unfold as tales of the unexpected. But the final between France and England at the Parc y Scarlets stadium in Llanelli proved to be a tale of the expected – not least to the coaches and video analysts who had done exhaustive homework on the opposition.
Mo Marley's English girls had reached the final without conceding. The French goalkeeper had been beaten only twice – both times from the penalty spot. Although the two sides had scored in all their other games, they had failed to find a goal against each other when they met on the opening day of the championship. Anyone asked to pen a script for the final would have been forgiven for writing an ode to defensive virtues – though this was expected to be an occasion for prose rather than poetry. For observers who had tracked the teams throughout the tournament, it was an absorbing tactical contest between two very well-coached units. But spectators hoping for flowing champagne football might have been frustrated to watch two sides struggling with the cork.
The setting was near-perfect. Although local clocks marked 3pm and the sun was high in the sky, a wind sweeping across Wales from the Irish Sea trimmed enough degrees off the temperature for spectators to reach for protective clothing. As the teams lined for the anthems on the immaculate, lush green turf, the temptation was to glance at the two goalkeepers – England's unbeaten Elizabeth Durack in all-yellow strip and France's Solène Durand in red – and wonder if and when they would be beaten.
When Polish referee Monika Mularczyk signalled for the match to begin, strategies immediately became visible. The formations presented mirror images. For England, captain Sherry McCue and Katie Zelem worked tirelessly on the challenge of erecting a screen in front of the back four, while Jessica Sigsworth's job description as No10 entailed offering more support to the interchanging front three, whose default settings put Nikita Parris on the right; Melissa Lawley on the left; and the powerful Bethany Mead at the sharp end of the attack.
Gilles Eyquem, equipped with arguably the strongest bench in the competition, opted for the attacking template which had successfully breached the Germany defence during the second half of the semi-final. The suspension of his captain, Griedge M'Bock Bathy, prompted an obligatory change at the heart of the back four where, after some early positional uncertainties, Charlotte Saint Sans Levacher teamed up competently with the fast, athletic Aissatou Tounkara and contributed to attacking play with fine diagonal deliveries to Kadidiatou Diani on the left wing. It was further upfield from the back four, however, where France's strategy shaped the game.
In theory, Sandie Toletti was to play the same No10 role as Sigsworth. Initially, she did – but rapidly pushed forward to complete a line of four engaged in direct combat with the England rearguard. Claire Lavogez, on the right, and Diani, on the left, were prepared to take on England's influential full-backs Martha Harris and Paige Williams, constantly testing their speed off the mark, their tackling and their ability to cope with twists, turns and changes of pace.
For the England back four, defending was a full-time assignment. With their opponents pressing high and hard, building from the back became a daunting task. The solution was to play long – and generally into the hands of the accomplished French defence. When England tried to play their way through, they had to contend with Eyquem's ball-winners Aminata Diallo and Ghoutia Karchouni, darting in to anticipate and to tackle – and to win a lot of second balls when England's lofted long passes were repelled by the France defence.
With England's front players disturbing the ball-carrier rather than investing in collective pressing, the story was about French domination and English resistance. Defensive blocks made central penetration unviable – and endeavours to use the width resulted in dozens and dozens of throw-ins which chopped the action into tiny fragments. With attacks rarely culminating in goal attempts, much of the play was literally and figuratively peripheral.
Neither side had qualms about using their keepers, who were frequently involved in play but infrequently required to make a save. Two exceptions occurred in the space of 90 seconds midway through the first half, when faulty clearances by central defenders obliged them to produce noteworthy saves from Clarisse Le Bihan and Mead. The half ended with a flare, with Toletti shooting at goal and a pinball sequel to a French corner (the first of the game with 44:50 on the clock), in which the ball was twice kicked off the English line.
England emerged from the dressing-room after the break with renewed bite and greater readiness to look for passing combinations rather than direct supply from the back to the front lines. Within minutes, Parris was put through, only for Durand to respond rapidly. The France team, gradually getting into top gear, adorned their approach play with some neat passing moves but were unable to extend them into the goalscoring areas.
As a result, France dominated play during the second half, yet England had the lion's share of the goal attempts. Williams surprised everybody but the keeper with a quickly taken free-kick; Parris also tried her luck from long range; Mead, intercepting a loose pass, had a shot cleared off the line; three corners produced as many half-chances. After 90 minutes, however, nets remained unruffled.
In the meantime, Eyquem had made changes which – just as they had done in the semi-final – turned out to be decisive, refreshing his attack with Léa Declercq for Le Bihan and Faustine Robert for Lavogez. And extra time was into its fifth minute when France broke a deadlock which had lasted 185 minutes. A rehearsed corner had paid dividends against Germany and the set play again proved crucial, with substitute Robert conjuring a fine delivery from the right. Toletti directed a header into the ground which, after deflecting off central defender Aoife Mannion, just squeezed over Durack and into the roof of the English net.
Marley sought to rally her players as they hurriedly grabbed drinks while swapping ends midway through extra time. Yet, as she admitted afterwards, they had nothing left in the tank. With ten minutes to play, even the seemingly indefatigable McCue was called off, extenuated by her screening efforts in central midfield, and replaced by Jade Bailey.
With the red light flashing ominously on the England fuel gauge, France summoned the final acceleration which took them clear of their plucky opponents. The other substitute, Declercq, thwarted by Durack in a one-on-one minutes earlier, received a cross from Robert on the right. Her shot at goal was blocked but looped upwards and the onrushing Diallo headed into the net. Game over.
When the final whistle sounded, the English girls were almost too drained to register emotion. Gilles Eyquem embraced his coaching staff while his players bubbled with joy. It had required time and endeavour, but they had finally found a way to uncork the champagne.