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Defending champion United States continues its quest to repeat as World Cup champion today with its match against Spain in the knockout round of the World Cup. The winner plays France in Friday's quarterfinals.
The U.S. women's national team found itself in an unexpected battle with Spain in the Women's World Cup round of 16 on Monday and survived–but not by much. Megan Rapinoe's two penalty kicks were all that saved the Americans against an impressive, pressing Spain side, which gave the defending champions all they could handle before bowing out of the competition with a 2-1 defeat Reims, France.
The first was a blatant foul, Maria Leon lured into making a lunging tackle on the dashing Tobin Heath, her studs coming down on the foot of the right winger as she sped past her. But the second was far more controversial as Rose Lavelle went down, several strides after brushing against Virginia Torrecilla inside the area. It was debatable if there was even contact. Lavelle anticipated there would be, and fell to the ground anyway. Having given it initially, referee Katalin Kulcsar did not feel the replays proved she had made the wrong decision.
In England, we would have said Lavelle dived to con the officials, in America they will argue there was a touch and she was perfectly entitled to go down because of it. It was one of those decisions that feels like a tragic miscarriage when it goes against you and perfectly justified gamesmanship when you are the beneficiaries. Certainly, the thousands of US fans inside the stadium roared their agreement when the referee pointed to the spot again and Rapinoe held her nerve.
Spain, though, had done enough to sow a few seeds of doubts in American minds, particularly as they meet host nation France in the quarter-finals in Paris on Friday night. France are much better side than Spain, faster and stronger. They will look for the weaknesses and will look to cut through rather than dent them. Interestingly, Spain are not renowned for being a physical side, but they were not over-powered by the Americans and that bodes well for the teams left in the competition. If you can stand up to this US team you can play football against them and you can hurt them.
Spain’s problem is they have never been a prolific team in major tournaments. Good on the ball, clever and technically sharp, but they are blunt in attack. Even their goal came because of an American mistake, as goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher played a short, risky pass out to Becky Sauerbrunn, who was caught in possession by Lucia Garcia. She fed the ball immediately on to Jenni Hermoso, who was able to lift a shot beyond the keeper and into the top corner.
It was the first goal the US side have conceded at this tournament, but it was enough to offer hope to the likes of England, France, Germany and the Netherlands. They like to bully their opposition and when they cannot, they do not look anything like as menacing.
More boos from the Spain fans greet the final whistle, as VAR frustration lingers. But there's lots of respect shown between the players on the pitch as they all - looking exhausted after playing in this relentless heat in Reims - shake hands. The USA squad are now patting each other's backs, relieved. This was a tense one, but it's still a massive win for them.
Neither goalkeeper made a save in that game. USA scored both their shots on target and Spain scored their only one. Spain were in the game from the first minute to the last. We'll see more from them in the tournaments ahead.
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