Aotearoa at the U20 WWC: Game Two vs France

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Mate, all that was missing there was a goal. The kiwi U20 women were definitely outmatched by France but they were by no means intimidated, bringing a structural masterclass to the table to hold the hosts to a 0-0 draw. They coulda won it with a little more luck. Heck of a way to start a Thursday morning, that was.

Gareth Turnbull made one change to the team that fell late on to Netherlands, Jacqui Hand coming in for Maggie Jenkins. Otherwise it was the same team, same shape. France controlled most of the ball just like the Dutch did before them but this time the NZ midfield brought their A-Game and shut down the space that the Netherlands were able to take advantage of a couple times for their victory. Filtered them out the sides and then bossed those crosses in the air. This was a legit excellent defensive performance – clean sheets for New Zealand at World Cups of any age level are pretty bloody rare but they seriously earned this one.

Like, you can’t even play much better than Liz Anton did here in this game. Strong in the challenge, reading the play superbly, won seemingly every header… damn. And her CB partner Claudia Bunge wasn’t far behind. Then watching Malia Steinmetz intercept or tackle basically everything in sight was an absolute treat. Aneka Mittendorff and Sarah Morton down the sides. Mate.

Having said that, you don’t get a draw against one of the tournament favourites – and the hosts no less – without a bit of luck and they got that too. Emelyne Laurent and Sandy Baltimore were the main threats for France, playing on the wings. Baltimore especially, she was way more than a handful. Both had chances to win this thing and none better than Laurent’s blast over the top in the second half which, really, she probably shoulda buried. Or at least got it on target.

But that’s the way it goes and the kiwi defence earned that luck by limiting those chances, making the ones that did emerge that much more pressurised. As the game surged on at a rapid pace we saw players collapsing with cramp and struggling through injury. France had to replace their keeper after she collided with a teammate rushing out. Hannah Blake took every opportunity to stretch out that lower back thing. Remember that thing is going on in France during the sweaty end of a European heatwave. The commentator dropped that old clanger: battle of attrition. It was hard to argue. When the five minutes of injury time were up and both teams absolutely exhausted, it was the New Zealanders whose arms went up in celebration. This was a point to savour.

Unfortunately it’s not likely to keep them alive in the tournament for much longer. Next up they have a great chance to score a few goals against Ghana, who have lost conceding four goals in each of their games so far. Won’t be easy at all and the NZers clearly don’t have the cutting edge that Netherlands and France do but gotta have that belief.

Win that and they’ll have four points. For that to take them through to the next round Turnbull’s side also need France to lose to the Dutch… which seems like a lot to ask for. A draw and we’re out. Even if the results both go good then we’ve still got to overturn the goal differences by four. A 1-0 either way ain’t gonna be enough.

The gutting part is that if the Aotearoa side had held on for that draw against the Dutch then they’d be in an incredible position to make the knockouts for only the second time ever (after the 2014 side that featured Katie Bowen, CJ Bott, Steph Skilton, Meikayla Moore, Emma Rolston, etc.). It’s only a draw so chalking it up as one of the great results (NZF: “The New Zealand U-20 women have pulled off one of the most notable results in their country’s history after…”) seems a little excessive, like another example of NZ settling for the moral victory at these tournaments, but it was still bloody good and up against a couple of ruthlessly strong opponents they’ve performed super well so far.

There were a few half-chances to score. Nothing worth holding any regrets over. The NZers weren’t the best at passing the ball around, definitely not in the French half. The precision wasn’t there. However Paige Satchell’s pace was still a big threat. Set pieces, specifically a few trick corners and long throws, were still a big threat. There were a few moments when the bounce of the ball might have been kinder in those situations… but credit to the French defence because they were well up for it same as ours.

You know what happened though? They kept on pressing for that miracle. Gareth Turnbull had them defending supremely but they still respected the ball as much as they could when they had it. Didn’t always work against another technically proficient team but they never stopped trucking. Even in injury time they were trying to get forward, accepting the risk, trusting their teammates, believing in themselves, and working to get that winner. It didn’t happen but, oh look, they also didn’t concede.

Tactical balance is a wonderful thing. Giving it a go against one of the best teams in the world is a wonderful thing. Among the many eye-gouging frustrations from Andreas Heraf’s scandalous tactics was that when you play to such a strict plan you take out all room for passion and heart, which you’d think would be essential for international football. This performance was full of that – and they got the reward. That’s not a coincidence.

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