Full Time: World Cup semifinal preview

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What day is it? Also, call your family. I’m Emily Olsen here with Meg Linehan and Steph Yang — welcome to Full Time!

On To The Semifinals

When I was younger, my mom used to set the kitchen clock 10 minutes fast so we were never late. The wall clock was roughly eight minutes fast and the clock in the car was two minutes fast. All this to say, I never knew what time it was.

Being in New Zealand and Australia for the past month feels very similar. I never quite adjusted to the time and my math is always off. All I know is there are four games left in this edition of the tournament and it starts with Spain vs. Sweden at Eden Park, Auckland at 8 p.m. local / 4 a.m. ET / 9 a.m. UK.

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Spain’s talent dilemma

In its third World Cup appearance, La Roja has made it to the semifinal for the first time. The team last made a major tournament semifinal in 1997 at the European Championship. And now it will play against a Sweden team that is very used to being at this stage.

“If we’re not nervous, something’s not going right,” forward Jenni Hermoso said. “We have to feel that nervous sense in our stomach and to have the willpower to reach the final. Just by thinking about it, I get the shivers.”

It will be a battle of Spain’s potent attack, which has 15 goals this tournament, and Sweden’s organized defense which has allowed just two.

On the surface it should not be a surprise that Spain is part of this semifinal group; they have extremely talented players. However, the reality is this team has been going and continues to go through a lot (read about Las 15, an issue coach Jorge Vilda called a “question about the past” ahead of the game).

Still, the meld of young and old players appears to be working. They have the reigning Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas and a likely future winner in Aitana Bonmati. But instead of working together on the field, the FC Barcelona teammates have worked opposite one another. As Putellas works back from an ACL injury, Bonmati has stepped up in her place.

As Laia Cervelló Herrero writes, “When she plays with Putellas now, Bonmati lacks that freedom and space. They are two players with very similar characteristics and, in order not to step on her teammate’s toes, Bonmati is more restricted.”

In Vilda’s ever-changing lineup, having two of the best players in the world has caused an unexpected dilemma.

Sweden’s top scorer is a center back

In contrast to its opponent, Sweden is playing in its fifth World Cup semifinal and has previously made it to the gold medal game at the Tokyo Olympics against eventual winners Canada.

Unlike Spain, which has a plethora of attacking players, Sweden’s leading goal scorer is its center back. Amanda Ilestedt has four goals this tournament, all from set pieces, which puts her in second position in the golden boot race behind Hinata Miyazawa of Japan.

“Set pieces are very important. Amanda is very good there. (She) can score goals in different ways,” coach Peter Gerhardsson said. “Old fruits in trees when they fall down, you have to pick them up. That’s what we did in the last game (scoring goals from the set pieces).”

All but one of Ilestedt’s goals came from headed corner kicks. The goal Gerhardsson referred to as “old fruits in trees” falling down was the one against Japan. In that one, midfielder Kosovare Asllani sent a free kick into the box. Teammates Nathalie Björn and Magdalena Eriksson attempted shots, but it was Ilestedt who cleaned up from close range. Watch the technique here. 

When Ilestedt was asked if she wanted to be moved forward to striker after the 2-1 win over Japan, she joked, “I already did” before saying she likes playing defense.

“Amanda is amazing but we have so many players that are really good in the area so it’s a strength that we have, we’ve worked a lot on it,” one of Sweden’s captains, Asllani, said. “In the end, I don’t think anyone cares who’s the leading goal scorer, the only thing we’re thinking about is winning games.”

Steph’s Set Piece

Shining moments in Sweden’s press conference

The star of Sweden’s press conferences in the knockout rounds hasn’t been Asllani or leading goal scorer Ilestedt. It’s been Sweden’s head coach Gerhardsson: by turns expansive, taciturn, jovial, and sober. He’ll give a roundabout answer about who’s going to start at goalkeeper, and then he’ll drop a bon mot about taking the scoring chances wrapped up in a metaphor about picking up fruit that has dropped to the ground.

Before Sweden’s round of 16 clash with the U.S., Gerhardsson kept reiterating that the history between the teams meant nothing; all that mattered was the result on the day. Against Japan he opened up a little bit more on the tactical preview, and afterward he was even in a jokey mood.

Now, previewing Spain, he dipped into a philosophical well, spurred by a question about what he was currently reading. The answer: “Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World,” by German sociologist Hartmut Rosa, from which Gerhardsson was trying to draw lessons about his relationship with soccer.

“If you as a human being know everything it’s not exciting, and that’s why football is so exciting, because you never know,” he said. “As a coach, you don’t know what’s gonna happen. You can prepare, you can know things. And that’s why football is interesting. I cannot have any answers before the game.”

But with Sweden in the semifinal of a major tournament for the third time under Gerhardsson’s stewardship, I’d say he has some of the answers. He’s just not sharing them.

Call Your Mom

Being away from family for a month is hard, even if that family is technically with you at the World Cup. For Australia’s Hayley Raso, she has her mom in the stands as well as on her arm; the pair have a connection over full moons symbolized in their matching tattoos. Raso scored two goals against Canada in a must-win group stage finale on July 31. The moon was full that night.

Before the game against the U.S., Sweden’s goalkeeper Zećira Mušović, who had one of her best performances of the tournament, said her mom told her she was going to have a good game.

“She believed in us as a group and after some good loving words from her and I was ready to go.”

Ahead of the semifinal against Spain, Mušović’s coach, Gerhardsson, was asked about his mom.

“You mentioned a couple of years ago that you talk to your mother after the games. She usually gives you good tactical advice,” a Swedish journalist said. “Did you get any advice so far?”

Gerhardsson answered: “Just talked to her very briefly, but perhaps I no longer need to call my mother and I can make my own decisions. I can make the calls myself. But she’s very interested in football. She watches everything. The most interesting part of that, I still have to transfer lots of money to her (because) she buys all the newspapers so I can read up on everything when I get back.”

Fun Time World Cup Trivia

Test your knowledge

If you don’t want the answer to yesterday’s question, stop scrolling now….

As mentioned above, Amanda Ilestedt is the highest-scoring player among teams still in the tournament. She has four goals, all from set pieces. Hinata Miyazawa of Japan is the only players ahead of her, and is still leading the Golden Boot race.

Today’s question…

Which former USWNT great recently hinted at wanting the next U.S. coaching job when she said she would “love to lead this national team sometime in the future”?

(Photo: Ulrik Pedersen/Getty Images)

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