Footy Ferns at the 2019 World Cup: Getting Outclassed vs Canada

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It won’t take too long to sum that game up, it started with Canada in control and it ended with Canada in control and in between they scored twice while the kiwis barely even threatened. It was a disappointing result and a frustrating performance, frustrating because I’m not sure they were even that much worse than they were against the Netherlands – it’s just that Canada’s strengths cancelled out our own and the Ferns don’t have the luxury of being able to mix it up when Plan A is dismantled.

For forty-five minutes we stuck firm. Canada controlled 73% of the ball in that first half but the Ferns mostly dealt with what was thrown at them. An unchanged eleven, other than Olivia Chance and Betsy Hassett swapping sides for the first half hour – maybe to get Hassett on the ball more given we tend to play more down the left? – struggled to get a hold of anything in the midfield however prime performances from Abby Erceg and especially Rebekah Stott at the back meant that we were still level at the break.

We shouldn’t have been. Canada had a brilliant chance which their legendary striker Christine Sinclair somehow only nodded onto the crossbar from a corner and then the rebound was got to by Nichelle Prince only for Stotty to make a bit of a miraculous block on the header. That was from a corner kick. Canada needed a corner kick to break down Cameroon in the first game while the Ferns were, in that moment, a little rattled (and still defending with ten) after an extended injury timeout as CJ Bott was treated and eventually replaced, having charged down a cross that caught her on the wrist. The kind of one that could snap something and sure enough Tom Sermanni confirmed afterwards that it’s a suspected broken wrist and she’s getting checked out in hospital as this is being written.

Annalie Longo replaced Bott, which required a little shakeup in the midfield as Ria Percival switched to right back. Sorta figured it would’ve been Katie Bowen just to keep Percy in the midfield as that enforcer type but then with the way Janine Beckie had started this one at left wing we sorta needed the best available right back in that role too. It would be easy to say that having Longo in mids, a player nicknamed Flea, at the expense of our most physical woman in that position was detrimental… but to be honest even Percival wasn’t able to stamp her mark in the middle the way she did against Netherlands.

And that was the major difference between this game and the first one. A difference that both Ali Riley, immediately after the game, and Tom Sermanni at his press conference later, both highlighted. The Ferns weren’t able to win those fifty-fifties. They were too slow to hit the challenge, unable to win those tackles, and unable to deal with the second phase stuff either. When they did get in there, they tended to give the ball away pretty swiftly. Against the Netherlands we were comfortably outplayed but we made it tough for them, pushing people around and pressuring their defence. Canada were stronger though. They gave as good as they got and with that factor neutralised we were basically posted up in our defensive third the whole time.

Add to that that this Canadian team is as defensively solid as it gets. This was their tenth game of 2019 and their ninth clean sheet and that includes games against England, Spain, Nigeria, Norway, and Sweden (Nigeria scored the one goal in a 2-1 CAN win). Scoring goals is their deficiency but, like, give any team seven-tenths of the ball and see what happens. Kadeisha Buchanan and Sophie Schmidt were immense here, honestly flawless. Where the Dutch lingered too much and allowed us to press, Canada simply dished the ball up the wings or into the midfield with ease. They started with a back four but 18 year old Jayde Riviere was going so good down the right side that she effectively turned into a wingback, with Desiree Scott hanging deep from midfield and Shelina Zadorsky sliding inwards from the left. That unleashed plenty of width which dragged our playmakers (Chance and Hassett) wider and deeper, which in turn meant minimal support for the strikers who could barely get a touch on the ball as it was.

Then Canada came out of the half-time break and, at a pivotal time in the game where the Ferns have looked to strike in these kinds of games (the goal vs England & the Gregorius chance vs Netherlands), they scored two minutes after the kickoff and completely deflated the Fernies after they’d just had a good long chat about how they could capitalise in that second half. Unfortunately with almost nothing to show going forwards, conceding that quick was a killer. Percival got caught in the other half and a long ball picked out Prince (Canada had started playing more direct towards the end of the first half) and both our centre backs got dragged out which left Jessie Fleming with a simple finish on the cut-back.  

Even at 1-0 down we were at least theoretically still in the game, still hovering around within striking distance. And of course goal difference is a huge deal too so keeping it close is always a benefit. But nothing that Tom Sermanni did made a difference. Anna Green came on after an hour, replacing Sarah Gregorius – a defender on for a striker while 1-0 down… not the best look but there was at least a plan. Green went into a back three which allowed our wingbacks to provide the width which in turn should have meant more support players in the middle, with Hassett joining White up front. But of course it didn’t work that way and the game continued on exactly as before with Canada making all the running. Emma Kete got the last five minutes off the bench. No Paige Satchell or Hannah Wilkinson. By then we 2-0 down and it didn’t matter much. Sinclair managed to hit the frame of the goal again and, just like last time, Prince followed it up only this time she hit that empty net. And that pretty much officially killed whatever life might still have been in this contest.

Super disappointing because it just felt so inevitable from the start. Canada were never not in control and we never created those half-chances that we did against the Netherlands to keep it interesting. You have to wonder if the deflating nature of the Netherlands defeat was still lingering. Also the late kickoff and the travel could have been a factor, although not for Erin Nayler who actually played on loan in Grenoble a couple years ago and she made one of the saves of the tournament while the score was still at 1-0. There’s a little longer between games now and a lot less distance to travel between Grenoble and Montpellier. But none of that is a valid excuse at a World Cup, to be fair.

Again, I don’t really think the Ferns were off by that much and the areas where they were lacking felt more like it was forced by the way that Canada played. Netherlands were supposed to be the tougher matchup while Canada threw some nil-all potential at us but crazily it ended up the other way around. And despite the industrious efforts of Betsy Hassett in particular, we didn’t have the game breakers to change things. It’s kind of a bummer that the most talented set of defensive players we’ve ever had has coincided with a bit of a dearth of attackers. Which I guess is what happens when attacking football is under-prioritised from the top down and someone like Tom Sermanni is given only one year to orchestrate a full four-year World Cup cycle (three if you start the cycle at the Olympics – note that Tommy Shades has re-signed for another year until Tokyo 2020).

This is not the time for surrender though. This is not the time for tournament obituaries. We knew from the start that two losses outta two was a possibility but victory over Cameroon in game three was always the most essential thing. That’d tick off our first ever win at a World Cup (at the 15th attempt) and it would still give us a decent shot at being one of the top four third-place finishers. Almost every game around the tournament from now on factors into that. Three points should be enough for at least one or two third-placed teams with the best goal difference to advance. So each time a third-placed team is thrashed, our odds increase. And, yes, this all depends on beating Cameroon… but if we don’t win that game then we’re done regardless so no point assuming otherwise.

Three groups already have three teams with wins. Our group has two teams still on zero, while Argentina are on 1 point in Group D and play 0-point Scotland in their last game. A draw there would be ideal, a narrow Scotland win would still be acceptable. We might need to beat Cameroon by two or more if the latter is the case but at least it’d give us something within the realms of feasibility. And Group F is a huge one for us because even if there’s a winner between Chile and Thailand, USA can do is a solid by even only putting half as many goals past Chile as they did past the Thais. Easier said than done when Chile’s Christiane Endler might be the best goalie on the damn planet but USA looked ruthless in that first game. USA vs Chile is on Monday morning at 4am.

Elsewhere a convincing winner between China and Spain would be nice. A draw and that’s one of these four spots out of our reach. Likewise if France could beat Nigeria handily, that’d help. There’s little hope for Group C as even if Brazil loses to Italy they’d still have too much of a goal difference advantage (and unlikely that Australia loses to Jamaica, tbh). But even then we’d just have to do better than two of the other five thirdies.

All of that depends on our ability to beat Cameroon. There’s nothing else to it, we win or we’re out. It’s a knockout game to reach the knockouts and the success or failure of our World Cup campaign depends almost entirely on those ninety minutes there on Friday morning at 4am. Everything that this team has worked on over the last few years, from the setbacks to the triumphs, was to get them to this point and that’s all that matters now.

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