Dutch underdogs stand in way of record fourth World Cup title for Rapinoe’s USA
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Led by the charismatic Megan Rapinoe, the United States are aiming to retain the women's World Cup and clinch their fourth title overal as they face European champions the Netherlands in Sunday's final in Lyon.
A sell-out crowd of close to 60,000 is expected in the French city for the showpiece game of the World Cup, which kicks off at 5pm local time (3pm GMT).
The USA have lived up to their status as favourites coming into the tournament by becoming the first team ever to reach three consecutive women's World Cup finals.
They have a chance to lift the trophy for the fourth time in eight editions, four years after Carli Lloyd's hat-trick helped them to a 5-2 win over Japan in the final in Canada.
It hasn’t always been plain sailing for the mighty Americans at this tournament. After opening their title defence with a record 13-0 victory over Thailand, they have had to fight to get through the knockout rounds, edging out Spain, hosts France and then England on their way – each time with a narrow 2-1 scoreline.
"We have come through a tough road in terms of the teams we have played to get to this point, so for sure they are battle-tested, but what I love about this group is that they are locked on and still hungry," said USA coach Jill Ellis of her team.
Rapinoe scored braces in the wins over both Spain and France before sitting out the semi-final defeat of England due to a hamstring injury. The pink-haired midfielder, who turned 34 on Friday, was confident she would be fit in time to return against the Netherlands.
"I expect to be good to go for tomorrow and I'm very excited about that opportunity," she said at Saturday's pre-match press conference. "I'm like a kid in a candy store right now, this is the absolute best stage."
Rapinoe, one of only five survivors in the US squad from the 2011 final defeat against Japan, used the press conference to hit out at FIFA for scheduling this year's final on the same day as those of the men's Copa America and CONCACAF Gold Cup.
She also urged the world game's governing body to further increase prize money for the tournament in future.
Rapinoe’s spat with US President Donald Trump over her intended boycott of any team visit to the White House, coupled with her role in the US team's battle with their federation for equal pay, have turned the veteran into the big star of this World Cup – both on and off the pitch.
Dutch ‘know what it takes to win a championship’
However, the Netherlands are hoping to cause a major upset and strike a blow for Europe at just their second World Cup, two years after being crowned European champions on home soil.
"I think we just need to approach the game as we approach every game," said Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman.
"We know we are playing a top-level team so we need to perform even better and we will defend the way we always do, as a team," she added.
The Dutch have their own fitness concern with Barcelona winger Lieke Martens racing to recover from a toe injury sustained during their semi-final defeat of Sweden.
"Of course we are European champions but we want to have more and that we are standing in the final now at the World Cup, at the highest level in women's soccer, that's fantastic, that's amazing," said the midfielder Sherida Spitse.
The Netherlands have won 12 consecutive matches at major tournaments under Wiegman, and Sunday's final will be just the second at the women's World Cup to bring together two female coaches.
While Wiegman is hoping to claim a second major tournament triumph in as many attempts, the English-born Ellis can become the first coach to win back-to-back World Cups in the men's or women's game since Italy's Vittorio Pozzo in the 1930s.
"They're European champions, that's a very difficult thing to do, that takes a certain level of discipline and mental strength," said Rapinoe, suggesting the Dutch had a psychological edge over team USA’s previous opponents.
"They have that idea of what it takes to win a championship more than the other teams we have faced," she explained.
The Netherlands' mental toughness was on full display on Wednesday as they outlasted their Swedish opponents during a close-fought semi-final, scoring the game's only goal deep into extra time.
Sweden bounced back from that defeat on Saturday, edging England 2-1 in a thrilling third-place play-off to end their World Cup campaign on a high.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)