Bad news for Sweden: Miedema gets better in big games

Sports

Netherlands’ Vivianne Miedema, right, and Italy’s Sara Gama challenge for the ball during the Women’s World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Italy and the Netherlands, at the Stade du Hainaut stadium in Valenciennes, France, Saturday, June 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

LYON, France (AP) — Here’s some bad news for Sweden’s defense ahead of its World Cup semifinal Wednesday against the Netherlands: Vivianne Miedema gets even better in the big games.

After scoring in every knockout match at the European Championship two years ago, helping the Netherlands win the title, the prolific Dutch striker is vying to do the same here.

Miedema’s superb glancing header in a tough round of 16 match against Italy took her tournament tally to three goals in five games — two behind Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan of the United States, and England’s Ellen White.

Don’t bet against Miedema overtaking them; she’s a knockout-round big hitter. After not scoring in the group stage at Euro 2017, she then scored in the quarters and semis before netting twice in the final against Denmark.

She, like her teammates, is under serious pressure to deliver from the demanding Dutch fans descending on Lyon.

“At the Euros nobody expected a lot from us and once we started winning our country stood behind us,” Miedema said. “(Coming) here, everybody in Holland said, ‘Oh, they are going to be world champions’ and that gave us a lot of pressure.”

On Wednesday, thousands upon thousands of Dutch fans will turn much of the stadium a dazzling orange.

“We get so much energy from it, we hope it’s a Dutch party again,” Miedema said. “My first (international) game was six years ago, in front of 500 people. The Euros have helped us a lot — it’s been growing a lot over the past couple of years.”

With the growth of the national team comes increased media coverage — good and bad.

At the start of this tournament, it was bad. The Dutch labored past New Zealand courtesy of an injury-time goal. Forward Shanice Van De Sanden, who has not scored so far, has received a lot of criticism.

But coach Sarina Wiegman also sees criticism as a reflection of the growing stature of the women’s game.

The men’s team has often been criticized by its fans and media for having never won a World Cup — losing three finals — and only winning one Euro. This despite wonderful players like Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and Robin van Persie.

Why should the women be treated differently? As long as the criticism does not become “personal,” Wiegman welcomes it.

“Many people have an opinion and that’s fine. It means we’re more visible,” she said through a translator at a pre-match news conference. “The entire squad has faced criticism. At the beginning the players were heavily criticized, but we were able to win.”

Sweden’s Peter Gerhardsson might find the criticism bemusing, since he is a self-confessed fan of Dutch soccer.

“Historically, they are a machine,” he said. “It’s always the individuals who characterize the side in terms of organization.”

Gerhardsson will have admired Miedema’s header against Italy: the huge leap, the timing, the accuracy, the bullet-like trajectory into the net. Now he must stop her adding to 61 goals in 80 internationals — achieved at just 22 years old.

Then there’s defender Stefanie van der Gragt, whose towering header against the Italians was equally impressive.

The first goal against Italy: a free kick expertly delivered from the left.

The second: an equally good one from the right.

Sweden has been warned.

“We are going to manage their set-piece plays. We have a team working on all these aspects, looking into everything,” Gerhardsson said. “We are happy with how our team of analysts … how they attack, how they defend. You can have all the information possible.”

The analytical breakdown of Dutch free kicks and corners is something Gerhardsson and his backroom staff do well — as proven in the 2-1 win against two-time world champion Germany in the previous round.

“We will have a plan as always,” Gerhardsson said. “All we need to do is execute it.”

This also encompasses players using intuition.

“In set-piece plays you have to have flexibility and players have to be on their toes,” he said. “I don’t believe they (the Dutch) are going to do the same thing every time. It’s going to be down to the players’ creativity to defend against that.”

Veteran defender Nilla Fischer thinks she knows how to stop the supply line to Miedema.

“Push them to one side and keep them there, so they won’t be able to turn and get a cross in,” Fischer said. “It’s important that we keep our defensive shape.”

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