SYDNEY (AP) — France has had to roll with the punches at the Women’s World Cup.
The No. 5-ranked team was held to a surprise draw against Jamaica in its opening game and on Wednesday had the shock of going a goal down to Panama inside two minutes.
France recovered to win 6-3 and advanced to the round of 16 atop Group F, but celebrations were muted after being pushed by another underdog.
“From the get-go the most important thing for us was to finish at the head of the group after three games,” said France coach Herve Renard.
He spoke after the Jamaica game of the way in which the gap is closing in women’s international soccer. And Wednesday was further evidence of that as Panama exposed France’s defensive weaknesses and Jamaica held Brazil 0-0 to advance as runner-up in the group.
“There was a huge shock this evening. If we can consider this as a huge shock,” Renard said. “This shows, you can see with your very own eyes, that the women’s game is kicking things up a notch.”
France could face two-time champion Germany in the round of 16. While that is a potentially daunting prospect, this World Cup has proven that reputations can count for little as the once-dominant nations are being seriously challenged and cut down to size.
As well as Jamaica, South Africa is another unexpected name in the knockout stage, while Colombia beat Germany 2-1 and leads Group H heading into the last match.
“I think still there’s some difference with some teams, but we can see a lot of new faces in this World Cup,” said Renard, adding that increased physicality in women’s soccer is playing a part in leveling the playing field.
France responded to going behind to Marta Cox’s 30-yard (meter) free kick by scoring five times by the 52nd minute. But it still conceded two more as Panama mounted an unlikely fightback late on.
The French had to thank Kadidiatou Diani, who scored a hat trick to put them well ahead by the time Panama came back into it.
“On a personal note it was wonderful to be able to score my first goals at a World Cup,” she said. “I think I’m going to keep on the positives. We were able to score six goals.
“There are a couple of negative notes. We conceded three goals, but for me the most important thing is to hold our heads high and we’ve got a couple of days to work on our defensive set play.”
FIFA president Gianni Infantino was part of a crowd of 40,498 at Sydney Football Stadium for one of the most thrilling games of the tournament so far.
The French only needed a draw to guarantee their place in the round of 16 for the fourth time in succession. But Renard’s team was given an early scare when Cox whipped the ball into the top corner, beyond the reach of goalkeeper Pauline Peyraud-Magnin to score her country’s first goal at a Women’s World Cup in style.
France responded impressively to that early setback by going into the break with a 4-1 lead.
Panama’s Deysire Salazar lashed the ball into her own net when trying to clear Maelle Lakrar’s header in the 21st. Diani scored her first goal seven minutes later, and converted from the spot in the 37th after Yomira Pinzon handled in the area.
Lea Le Garrec made it 4-1 in the fifth minute of first-half stoppage time.
Panama’s players had gone from elation at the start of the half to dejection at the end of it.
As the whistle blew for the break, Cox gathered her teammates for an impromptu huddle in the middle of the field, with the players looking visibly frustrated.
It got worse for Panama as Diani scored her second penalty seven minutes after the break when Wendy Natis was penalized on a VAR review for handling in the box.
France appeared capable of going on a goal spree in the second half, but it was Panama’s players who mounted an unexpected fightback.
They pulled a goal back with a penalty in the 64th, which was converted by Pinzon.
Lineth Cedeno scored another for the 52nd-ranked team, with a header in the 87th.
Vicki Becho hit France’s sixth in the 10th minute of stoppage time to set a new record for the number of goals her country has scored in a Women’s World Cup match.
France will play the second-place team from Group H in Adelaide next Tuesday.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP Women’s World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/fifa-womens-world-cup
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