Five-Star USA Triumph In Style In "The Carli Cup Final"
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Story by Jeremy Ruane In Canada
It will go down in history as "The Carli Cup Final", due to the outstanding individual display of captain Carli Lloyd, but the all-round performance of Team USA was every bit as significant and decisive as they brought the four-year reign of Japan as world champions of women's football to an emphatic end at Vancouver's BC Place Stadium on July 5.
To win any cup final 5-2 is an amazing achievement. To do so in the global spotlight which the FIFA Women's World Cup Final attracts is something else again. This wasn't just a win by the world's most successful women's football-playing nation. This was a triumph. And one achieved in some style.
And in a heck of a hurry! In a manner not dissimilar to Liverpool's demolition job on Arsenal at Anfield in the 2013-14 English Premier League season, the USA were 4-0 up and in dreamland after just sixteen minutes.
The pressure was applied inside the first two minutes via a delightful flowing move. Tobin Heath linked with birthday girl Megan Rapinoe, who fed overlapping fullback Meghan Klingenberg.
Rapinoe raced forward for a return pass, which duly arrived, and she promptly pinged the ball across to Ali Krieger. She brought Heath back into the move, and the lively loose-limbed attacker swiftly slipped a pass into the stride of Morgan Brian, surging through from midfield. Saki Kumagai dashed across to cover the threat, at the expense of a corner.
From which the USA took the lead. Rapinoe delivered the ball to somewhere near the twelve yard mark, where Lloyd, who must have started from somewhere near the carpark, so deep was her run, arrived bang on cue to thunder the ball home - 1-0, with just three minutes having been played.
Japan was still reeling from this blow when Team USA's "Captain Fantastic" dealt them a second hammer blow, in the fifth minute. The source this time was a Lauren Holiday free-kick to the near post, which was flicked on by Julie Johnston.
The ball struck a defender's arm, but while Alex Morgan was appealing for a penalty, Lloyd swooped to conquer from inside the six-yard box - 2-0, and the reigning world champions were under an enormous amount of pressure.
They were still looking to recover the situation when Holiday dealt them a mortal blow in the fourteenth minute. Brian played the ball wide for Heath, whose teasing cross was misjudged by Azusa Iwashimizu. As she looked around wondering where her header had gone, Holiday strode into the penalty area and majestically volleyed home a soul-destroying third USA goal.
If the game wasn't over as a contest after that strike, it certainly was two minutes later, when Lloyd completed her hat-trick in insane fashion. Latching onto a stray pass inside her own half, she swept past an opponent and, looking up, spotted Nadeshiko goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori off her line.
What happened next you just do not do in normal circumstances, never mind in the middle of a World Cup Final! But Lloyd did it - let rip from half-way with a perfectly flighted long-range lob which the back-pedalling Kaihori could only palm onto the inside of her right-hand post, off which the ball ricocheted into the net.
4-0, including a thirteen minute hat-trick, and only the second scored in a World Cup Final of any description. There will forever be doubts about the certainty of one of Geoff Hurst's goals in his 1966 treble at Wembley.
Of Carli Lloyd's treble, there will never be any - the match ball-clinching third strike was as emphatic an exclamation mark as you will ever see on such a stage; an "I was there" moment to which 53,341 fans inside BC Place were witness, let alone those watching around the globe.
And she so nearly scored a fourth goal two minutes later! Rapinoe drew two defenders on the left before slipping the ball through for Klingenberg ahead of her. The fullback delivered a pinpoint cross to the near post which Lloyd leapt salmon-like to meet. The look of disbelief on her face as she saw her header go past the post said everything, and proved her humanity - prior to this miss, everything she touched had turned into goals.
There was more chance of Nadeshiko winning Lotto than there was of coming back from this deficit, but to their eternal credit, Norio Sasaki's charges set about endeavouring to do so via their usual passing game, which took them until the twenty minute mark to establish following the USA's dream start.
They fired their first shot in anger three minutes later, Aya Sameshima setting up Mizuho Sakaguchi for a twenty-five yarder which, although it was going wide, Hope Solo plunged to her left to save.
She promptly sparked a counter-attack which unleashed the mesmerising talents of Morgan, at pace down the left. Into the penalty area she charged, jinking past two opponents before lashing a low drive to Kaihori's right which the 'keeper gratefully smothered.
In the 27th minute, the reigning world champions dragged themselves back into the contest on the scoreboard. Captain Aya Miyama played the ball wide to Nahomi Kawasumi, and she worked her way in-field before picking out Yuki Ogimi, who expertly turned Johnston before picking out a beauty beyond the flailing fingertips of Solo - the first time she had been beaten in exactly nine hours of football, a Women's World Cup record.
Three minutes later, Japan contrived a superb move which deserved better fate. Sakaguchi and Miyama worked their way through the middle of the park before linking with Ogimi, who brought the overlapping figure of Sameshima into play.
Her cross wasn't cleared, allowing the lively figure of Kawasumi to head the ball back from the by-line for Shinobu Ohno, who presented Miyama with the chance to let rip from fifteen yards. Solo was right behind the effort.
The success of this raid prompted Nadeshiko to shake things up even more, and saw the introduction, before the interval, of two players, Yuika Sugasawa's entry to the fray following that of Homare Sawa, whose international swansong this was.
It was the USA who would have the final say in the half, with claims for a penalty waved away by Ukrainian referee Kateryna Monzul after Morgan went down in the area in between Kumagai and Sakaguchi, Iwashimizu having been one of those withdrawn from the action - the tears shed by the long-serving defender as she slumped on her seat in despair were far from the crocodile variety.
The ball was cleared to Krieger, but the danger remained, with the fullback picking out Lloyd with a cross which the goal-hungry midfielder headed goalwards, only for Kumagai to once more intervene.
The second spell was just three minutes old when Lloyd stormed downfield once more before feeding Rapinoe. Her cross to the vicinity of the far post fond Krieger arriving on cue, but her shot was blocked by Sakaguchi.
Two minutes later, more Lloyd magic ensued, the midfielder brilliantly outfoxing two opponents before executing the perfect air-shot, only to swiftly recover and set up Brian for a dipping twenty-five yarder which Kaihori tipped over the bar at the death.
Japan responded by reducing the deficit still further - they couldn't possibly score four themselves, could they? Miyama flighted a delightful free-kick into the penalty area which Johnston, in her efforts to clear, only managed to divert beyond the reach of Solo - 4-2.
Any hopes Nadeshiko realistically held of producing the fightback to end them all were dashed by Team USA's instant response. Holiday pinged in a corner right into the danger zone which Kaihori pawed out, but only as far as Brian, who was coming in around the back.
She guided a header inside for Heath, who gleefully steered home from six yards to make it 5-2 - even with just 54 minutes on the clock, it was game over now, surely.
Not while Japan had their female firecracker to call upon. Within minutes of entering the fray, Mana Iwabuchi began creating mayhem in her own inimitable style - she could start a riot in a phone booth, this lass, make no mistake!
Rumi Utsugi thumped a thirty yarder narrowly past Solo's left-hand post just two minutes after her team-mate's introduction, to which the USA responded via a right flank raid featuring Krieger and Heath, and culminating in Morgan's shot on the turn flashing past the post.
The menace of Lloyd would not go away, as far as Japan were concerned, and in the 66th minute she forced Kumagai into a hurried back-pass, and Kaihori into an even hastier clearance as the winner of yet another FIFA Player of the Match award did her level best to hunt down a fourth goal and claim the Golden Boot for herself, alongside the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player, an honour Lloyd richly deserved.
Back came Japan, Solo producing a super save to deny Ogimi after Sawa had gone down in the area, the veteran star of the women's game proceeding to give referee Monzul a right old earful in the immediate aftermath of not being denied a penalty. She certainly had a case.
The USA's response? Go down the other end and threaten once more, this time through substitute Kelley O'Hara, whose rasping twenty-yarder flashed inches over the bar after Holiday had picked out Lloyd with a corner which the captain guided down into the flank player's stride.
Cue a flurry of opportunities for Japan, the first of which saw Solo punch Miyama's cross off the head of Ogimi. Then Sawa linked with the striker, whose cross was deftly controlled by Iwabuchi. As she shaped to pull the trigger, however, Becky Sauerbrunn, one of the unsung heroines of this USA team, stepped in to avert the danger - she's had a rock-solid Finals.
After substitute Yuika Sugasawa had guided a header straight at Solo following Miyama's 76th minute corner, another set-piece delivery from Japan's captain inside the final ten minutes resulted in volleys from both Utsugi and Sugasawa being blocked.
These efforts followed the introduction to the fray of Abby Wambach, to whom Lloyd passed the captain's armband in recognition of the contribution the world's most prolific striker in international football had made during her career.
Soon after, an even greater roar erupted - were that at all possible from this heavily US-oriented crowd - as the sole member of the last USA squad to win the FIFA Women's World Cup, Christie Rampone, was introduced to the fray in what will surely be the last hurrah on the world stage for a player who turned forty during the course of these Finals.
There was still time for one last USA attack, however, and fittingly, the game's most dominant player was at its heart. Lloyd played a one-two with Krieger before feeding Holiday, who swiftly rewarded the overlapping fullback's run down the right. Had Kumagai not diverted Krieger's cross to safety, Wambach was poised to make it six.
5-2 was more than enough for Team USA, however, captain Lloyd leading from the front with a Herculean personal display. She later admitted to being "on a mission" when she took to the pitch, the roots of which were established in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup Final between these same nations.
On that occasion, the USA were shell-shocked upon losing an epic encounter to Japan on penalties, and vowed there and then to go about resolving unfinished business four years on at Canada 2015.
And how! For the third time, Team USA are champions of the world. Mission accomplished.
Japan: Kaihori; Ariyoshi, Iwashimizu (Sawa, 33 (booked, 82)), Kumagai, Sameshima; Kawasumi (Sugasawa, 39), Sakaguchi, Utsugi, Miyama; Ogimi, Ohno (Iwabuchi, 59 (booked, 85)).
USA: Solo; Krieger, Johnston, Sauerbrunn, Klingenberg; Brian, Lloyd, Holiday; Heath (Wambach, 79), Morgan (Rampone, 86), Rapinoe (O'Hara, 61).
Referee: Kateryna Monzul (Ukraine).