If the Ferns hit rock bottom a year ago amidst the disastrous reign of a coach who shall not be named beneath the disastrous reign of a chief executive officer who shall not be named… then it’s also fair to say that they’ve made quick and significant progress under Tom Sermanni ever since. It’s a testament to Sermanni’s steady hand but even more than that it’s a reflection of a strong culture within the team that’s built up over the last decade with so many experienced players in the group.
The Ferns have never won a game at a World Cup. Never made it out of the group stage either. No secret whatsoever that those are the two major targets for the Ferns at this World Cup and thanks to a twist of fortune with the silly FIFA rankings they were granted a third seed for the group stage draw which offers the Ferns their best ever opportunity to do exactly that. And with one should come the other – a 24 team tournament means six groups with four of the top six third-placed finishers advancing so one win will probably be enough as long as they don’t get thrashed elsewhere.
Except that speaking of getting thrashed, that’s exactly what happened when the Fernies played the USA last week. A 5-0 defeat which got a fair bit of context and analysis over here if you haven’t already partaken in that one. Tom Sermanni didn’t seem to take it too hard. That’s not his style. Basically he said that the result wasn’t too unexpected and it might even be a nice wake-up call in the long run because it shows that they can’t feel like they’re any further ahead of themselves than they really are. Which… I’m not sure anyone really did. But that 5-0 defeat doesn’t exactly do wonders for public expectations with the World Cup getting underway in less than three weeks.
TNC’s reaction piece from the USA game went into plenty of reasons why that game, not just the result but that game itself, wasn’t good for the Ferns’ preparation at this point. They were playing a team which was already way better, with several weeks more training under their belts, offering minimal stylistic comparisons to the teams that the Ferns will play at the World Cup, while most NZ players only just finished their club seasons and some were still unavailable because of that. Cards well and truly stacked against them even before they had to play at a converted baseball stadium.
So the test was to make sure a no-win situation didn’t become a demoralising psychic presence for the team and thankfully it doesn’t look like it has – with the Ferns bouncing back with a 2-1 win over Mexico in a behind-closed-doors game in New York City. Rosie White scored from the penalty spot midway through the first half following a handball in the box. Then Sarah Gregorius made it two within ten minutes, doing exactly what this team has been building towards and nicking the ball away on the high press to score. That’s been a theme since the Cup of Nations and here, finally, not a moment too soon, we’re seeing it work against a decent enough opposition.
In the second half there were a number of subs made as all the available players except third-string keeper Nadia Olla got minutes. That included Rebekah Stott, CJ Bott, and Vic Esson who have been released now by their clubs after missing the USA game. But Abby Erceg and Katie Bowen, who played vs USA and then backed it up for their clubs against each other three days later, weren’t available. No Betsy Hassett either who is in her last week before her Icelandic club takes a break for the World Cup. Those subs probably disrupted things though the Ferns apparently continued to create chances, but weren’t able to put away a third to kill it off and then conceded a Lizbeth Ovalle goal with ten minutes to go to make it tricky. They held on for the win though. All good experience.
By the way, assuming the same starting formation as against USA, it was a starting eleven of: Nayler / Bott, Moore, Stott, Green / Percival, Chance / White, Longo, Riley / Gregorius. Possible that it was back to a 5-3-2 instead though, which would mean Riley sliding back to LWB, White sliding up to striker, and Green sliding over to LCB. Sorta think it might have been the latter but can’t say without knowing so keep an open mind.
Now here’s the gaffer with more context…
Tom Sermanni: “It was a good result and we probably made it a bit more difficult than we could have. We were 2-0 up at half-time and really looking quite comfortable – over the course of the 90 minutes we hit the crossbar three times and the post once – it was probably the most chances we have created in a game this year against some better opposition so that was pleasing.
We got a little bit ragged at times and allowed Mexico to come back into the game with a late goal but those are things that are probably good to happen now, to judge the reaction of being in front and make sure we don’t give those goals away.
It was a great show of character and it also helped that we had at least four good training games between those two games and the players had settled in much better. Training has been much more dynamic than it was leading into the USA game. There is still some ways to go and things to improve on, but there were a lot of promising things from the game today.”
Again, shows why the USA game made no sense if we weren’t ever going to be able to play near our potential there, but at least the squad has been hard at work ever since. Mexico didn’t qualify for the World Cup, losing to Panama who went on to lose on penalties to Jamaica for the third spot from CONCACAF. They also lost 6-0 to USA in that tournament so clearly a game that the Ferns were capable of winning.
If we were being really ruthless then we’d say they should have won by more here. But that’s unfair, this is all preparation for the World Cup and we don’t need them to beat Cameroon 5-0… we just need them to win, somehow. 1-0 or 2-1 is perfectly fine. Just as they did here. Just as they did against an under-strength Norway team recently. Same deal against Argentina in Oz a few months back. And this win over Mexico helps put away the nagging worry that the USA game was a menacing portent of imminent doom despite all the valid excuses so that’s helpful.
The Football Ferns have never really been a team that are going to score a heap of goals in the big games, and they’re not about to be one any time soon. This team is a little weak up top and its strength is in defence. They only had one total shot against the USA. If they’re going to be successful at the World Cup then it’ll require them keeping games nice and close and then taking advantage of those decisive moments with a spare goal or two.
Against much better teams like Australia and South Korea they didn’t look like that could manage that. To be fair though, with Sermanni only taking over a year out from the tournament, the Ferns are on a rapid schedule to get to where they need to be and that Cup of Nations effort was a while ago now, comparatively speaking. Three months out of a twelve month campaign is like a whole year for the teams that have the full four year time frame.
But against teams of a lesser or equal level they’ve been getting results which is a positive sign ahead of France 2019. Cameroon are a team we can beat. It would have been nice to get a friendly game or two against comparable African competition but even still that’s the big one right there. Win that and we’ve completed one mission and will be in a great position to complete another one. That’s the Football Ferns’ third game in the group stage and it might as well be an elimination game.
Prior to that this team faces Netherlands and Canada in their first two group games, two teams they competed okay against four years ago but who will be strong favourites against them nonetheless. Bit scary, considering how they’ve fared against that sort lately. Canada beat Mexico 3-0 a week ago, for example. Netherlands beat Mexico 2-0 back in April and it’ll be very interesting to see how they shape against Australia in their final warm-up game before they face the Ferns in the World Cup opener. You’ve got to peak at the major tournaments though, so all we need is one defensive masterclass and a clean sheet and see where that goes.
Which comes back around to expectations and this preparation has been great in terms of the number and quality of fixtures that have been arranged but the trend continues once they get to Europe where they’ll face an England team that could beat them 5-0 again followed by a Wales team that are just happy to have a game, missing two of their best players, and whom the Ferns should beat all things being equal. Those are their final games before the World Cup begins. More of that much better/much worse dynamic.
It’ll be much preferred if they don’t get thrashed by England, a close and competitive defeat in which we maybe snatch a goal could be great momentum going into the World Cup. Let’s not forget that the England game, midnight on Sunday 2 June at Falmer Stadium (home of Brighton & Hove), will be the first that the Ferns have had their full squad for. Even against a team of a similar standard to USA, the Ferns will have all those other diminishing factors taken care of.
But regardless of what happens, nothing changes. The expectation is still to win a game and progress the knockouts. A draw or win against one of their first two opponents would go a long way towards achieving that but at least 80% of it depends on beating Cameroon and how they go against teams like USA and England don’t really matter when they’re such different challenges. Win a game. Make the knockouts. That’s what’ll determine whether they’re successful or not at this World Cup and our expectations, always, should be for success (in whatever relative form that takes).
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