Junior All Whites: Game One vs Ukraine

(Photosport/NZ Football)

(Photosport/NZ Football)

New Zealand 0-0 Ukraine

So close to victory, not far from defeat. A fine start to the Lil All Whites campaign, as they fought their way to a well-earned 0-0 draw with Ukraine, nearly stealing it at the end, even.

Look, it’s not a result that’ll get the world talking, but it’s a damn solid one. It’s our fourth tournament, and in nine previous games, we’d drawn two and lost seven, never having won and never having made the next round. In fact, this was our first ever U20 clean sheet and that’s for damn sure something to be proud of. The aim will be to squeeze into the next round and that’s still more than possible, especially as the four best third-place finishers also make the knockouts. Not trying to go all South Africa 2010 on y’all here, but three draws would probably do it…

25000 people packed out North Harbour Stadium for the opening match of the tourney, a wonderful turnout and a great sign for the rest of the show. Interestingly, coach Darren Bazeley had his side playing in the same 4-2-3-1 formation that the senior side has become accustomed to since Anthony Hudson took over. That’s not a shock, really, since Hudson’s brought about a very close relationship t the age group stuff and the seniors, just look at how many of these lads have already had full international call-ups. On one hand, you can see how these players fare to fit into the seniors in the long run, on the other had you wonder how much that commitment affects the team. But maybe Bazeley just coincidentally also like the formation.

This team was a mystery before game one. We all had hopes, but we all also had that nagging thought in the back of our minds… What if we aren’t that good? Will people still go watch, will it spoil the tournament?

Thankfully, while we aren’t quite Argentina/Brazil standard, we’re pretty decent. Ukraine are a fine side, one of the six top U20 teams in Europe according to their qualification (keep in mind: no France, no Spain, no England, no Italy…). They did seem maybe a step above us early on, but not an insurmountable step. Just a regular, garden-variety step.

The Eastern Europeans were clear in their intentions. Solid and safe at the back, enthusiastic on the wings and very well organised. Work it wide and cross it in. They made sharp decisions, knowing how to play and where to play it, and that meant they won most of the loose or second phase balls.

But we were equipped to deal with that. Ukraine’s style didn’t lend itself to complete and utter domination, instead providing us with a slow and calculated game like we could handle. They still had their chances, and a couple of times we were left to thank some poor composure in the box from the Ukrainians, but on the whole the first half was a bit bland as the sides cancelled each other out. New Zealand struggling to create much as Alex Rufer was bossed around up front by Kacharaba and Burda, while our wide midfielders let themselves down a couple times with heavy touches or poor crosses. Neither side showed much commitment to the concept of ‘possession’.

The second half was a drastic improvement though. Rufer came looking for the ball, and suddenly it started to click a little more going forward. Clayton Lewis had an amazing chance to open the scoring as he hustled into box and back around his marker, only to blaze it over the bar from an obscured angle. Great strength and speed to earn the chance (after a finely weighted ball from Rufer), just not quite the cojones in front of goal – a recurring theme for both sides. Of the 23 total shots in the game, only 4 were on target (NZL – 6/1 & UKR – 17/3).

At some point around the hour mark Ukraine seemed to realise that they could run at our fullbacks and make things happen, either dragging them inside to make room for a through ball or by beating them one-on-one. Yet the kiwis stayed strong in the middle, at one stage surviving a stretch of four consecutive defensive corners despite a physical disadvantages and mounting momentum. We were outmatched in the air against these guys but still competed like champs, especially Sam Brotherton and Adam Mitchell at the back.

Ukraine were just as wasteful as we had been too. More so, actually. Far too often they failed to test Ollie Sail in goal when a chance presented itself. Plus credit to our lads, because as Ukraine pressed harder, we did too. The game ended in a flurry of desperate half-chances and fast breaks. None better than Brotherton’s one in injury time, nodding the ball past the post after a poor defensive clearance had found its way to him free and unmarked. So, so close to an incredible result, although still one to be proud of.

Another day and we may have lost this 3-0. Another day and we may have won it. Defensively there are cracks to fill in and up front there are question marks. Alex Rufer, listed as a midfielder in the press kit, wasn’t at all suited to playing against a couple six-foot-plenty centre backs – Kacharaba basically kept him in his pocket. But he got better in the second. He was replaced after 64mins by Noah Billingsley, the youngest player in the squad, but more of a physical presence. Billingsley brought a real energy to the front line (helped by the fact he had more support than Rufer) and had the size to go toe to toe with his markers. Monty Patterson, of Ipswich, also brought some quality off the bench. He’s got plenty of skill on the ball and enough invention to make things happen. It would have been debateable whether we’d have the depth to find difference-makers on the bench and thankfully we did.

America will be the U20 All Whites’ toughest test, which is exactly why we oughta be excited for it.

On a side note, Ukraine were missing one of their top midfielders, Valerii Luchkevych, after he found himself on the bench for FC Dnipro in the Europa League final. That’s the calibre of talent we’ve got on show in New Zealand over the next few weeks, trudging up and down the same fields as our own.

The Highlights:

The Lads: 

The Moment:

Deep into stoppage time, the crowd desperate for a reason to let loose... It had elements of Winston Reid vs Slovakia right up until it didn't quite happen.

Shot, Bro:

Bill Tuiloma was a class above. Hopefully whatever knock it was that forced him off doesn’t make for any issues, because this team really does rely on having his presence in the middle, closing off counter attacks and bringing a composure in possession. Tui takes one touch where others need three.

But credit also to centre-back Sam Brotherton who had a top game himself. He was the guy who nodded that late header wide, but he was also the key factor in a rare clean sheet for a New Zealand team at a major tournament. Especially in the second half when he was an absolute wall, stepping up to header away so many times that the ball probably had an imprint of his forehead on it. Commanding stuff.

Sort It Out, Mate:

Given that the game took place on the day that Sepp Blatter was re-elected for a fifth term as FIFA president, it was poetic to see the customary FIFA Fair Play banners drawn out across the pitch before kick-off. The same goes for the ceremonial ‘Handshake for Peace’ between the captains and refs. Like, the shook hands, so… no more political and social unrest in native Ukraine then? Putin will be glad to hear it.

Up Next:

U20 All Whites vs USA, Tuesday 7pm @ North Harbour Stadium, Auckland