France secured their place in the knockout stages of the European Championships with a game to spare after emerging as victors against Belgium on a dusky summer evening, but they will wait anxiously for news on the knee injury suffered by their striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto.
Their opponents, meanwhile, will now have to hope results elsewhere go their way. Though they kept the scoreline respectable, they were unable to deny Kadidiatou Diani and Griedge Mbock from punishing their defensive lapses.
France, who had begun their group stage campaign with a 5-1 rout of Italy, gave Belgium’s defence no time to acclimatise to their blistering attack. They immediately set out to ask questions of their opponents via Grace Geyoro.
Given that Geyoro had racked up a hat-trick in her previous game, it seemed a sensible decision for Belgium to focus their attention on her. Yet it was Kadidiatou Diani who snuck in at the far post in the sixth minute to nod in a perfectly timed header from Sakina Karchaoui’s deep cross.
After a lengthy VAR check for a possible offside, the game got going again – and so did the French attack. This time they were led by Clara Matéo on the opposite flank, who was cutting in and running rings around Sari Kees. She almost made it 2-0 with a curling effort that led to reverberating “oohs” around the New York Stadium.
From top to bottom, France were purring. If there was any point of concern for their manager, Corinne Diacre, it would have been the early substitution of Katoto, who seemed to go down without any provocation and left the pitch clutching a knee.
Her replacement, Ouleymata Sarr, had no time to settle. Moments later she was watching Janice Cayman level for Belgium with a toe-poke that trickled past Pauline Peyraud-Magnin.
No matter. France had already proved they could outscore opponents in their last game, and they showed it again with a goal from Mbock to make it 2-1 almost immediately.
A similar start to the second-half would go a long way in putting the game to bed. France clearly shared that thought and began peppering Nicky Evrard’s goal, with Geyoro leading the charge.
Sarr soon joined Geyoro, leaving Kees in her wake, but Evrard managed to gather the ball before she could force it into the net.
Something had to change for Ives Serneels’s team. In a bid to fire up the attack, Laura Deloose and Feli Delecauw were brought on around the 60-minute mark. The pair got to work immediately and soon Belgium were launching more counterattacks.
But though they were forcing greater turnovers in possession, France still possessed the superior attack. They would not be denied victory, goals or an assured passage to the quarter-finals, least of all on Bastille Day.
At the full-time whistle, Diacre and her squad could finally celebrate their progression to the business end of the tournament, although the fitness of Katoto will give them cause for concern.
July 15, 2022 at 03:09AM Maryam Naz at New York Stadium