So here we are then. On game and ninety minutes with basically the entire World Cup campaign on the line. The Ferns had two objectives coming into this tournament: to win their first World Cup game and the make the knockouts stages for the first time ever. Neither of those things were supposed to be easy, it’s the bloody World Cup after all, but they were both attainable, both realistic if they hit the desired standards and caught a little luck along the way.
Two defeats from two have put them in a tricky situation. They were just minutes away from something special against the Netherlands but were never really in it against Canada. Those are two teams who could well end up in the semi-finals at the end of this thing but that’s not really an excuse – we’re aspiring to be that good too, you know? However, end of the day, here we are having lost two games that we were always expected to lose. Step back from the emotional turmoil of the two games and we’re about where everyone thought we would be.
This third game though, we’ll be the higher ranked team this time. Cameroon are an underrated team but they’re a team we can beat… and so far this year we’ve been excellent at taking care of the winnable games. We beat Argentina (who drew with Japan at this tournament and pushed England a long way). We beat Norway (who’ve rolled through second in probably the toughest group in the tournament). We beat Mexico in a closed doors game. We also lost to Wales… but that was with a rotated team four days after beating England.
Morale of the story there is that the Ferns have been great recently at winning the targeted games under Tom Sermanni. Ultimately they had nothing to lose against Netherlands and Canada. The contrasting but equally demoralising defeats of those two don’t change the fact that we always needed to beat Cameroon if we were gonna do anything. You can bet your arse that Tommy Shades and his team have been churning out the scouting reports on that lot more than anyone. This is the culminating game of our tournament and was always going to be that case – success or failure depends entirely on this one.
Cameroon have been solid but overmatched so far. They battled hard against Canada and really looked like they could hold them out but they slipped up on their marking from a corner just before the half and Kadeisha Buchanan headed in what would be the only goal of the game. It was the only one that Canada needed, really, as their opponents only just 26% of possession and zero shots on target. We learned this lesson ourselves: Canada are a defensive masterclass. Like, the Ferns are good at defending their goal but that team is superb, especially as they’re able to dominate the ball in the midfield too. 74% of possession against Cameroon and 70% of possession against New Zealand. Quite similar stats for both Cameroon and New Zealand in those two games, actually. Suggests a pretty close game on the cards on Friday morning (at 4am… yikes).
Cameroon were more exposed at the back against Netherlands but had a lot more to show for their attacking exploits too. Including a goal, as Gabrielle Onguene’s goal had them dippin’ on those half-time oranges with a 1-1 scoreline. The goal came from a long ball over the top, straight down the middle, and Onguene got there ahead of a hesitant goalkeeper to score. Speed and directness. The Ferns will have to be on their game at the back to combat that… but then again what’s new? Anyway, Holland came out in the second half and scored straight away and then added another for a 3-1 win, putting two teams on six points and two on zero in Group E going into the final pair of games.
Cameroon made a mini-splash at the 2015 tournament with a 6-0 win over an overmatched Ecuador side in their first ever World Cup game (and here we are 14 games deep still without a win…) and thanks to a second half comeback win over Switzerland (also not at WWC19) they went through to the knockouts in second where they were edged 1-0 by China. So this team has some pedigree at this tournament and will be expecting to at least reach the same stage this time around… hence this game is basically a knockout for the knockouts now. Always important to remember that the stakes are as high for them as they are for us.
The Ferns are in for a different kind of contest against Cameroon. This could be an opportunity for us to have more possession, after having a mere 31% and 30% so far. At this point Sarah Gregorius and Rosie White have had to feed off scraps. Doubt that means we’ll be putting up Canadian numbers all of a sudden but it should be much more even and that should, in turn, take some pressure off our defence and give those poor strikers a little more to work with. Nothing really needs to change. We’ll still be looking to bring some heat on the counter attack and in those quick transitional phases. We’ll still be hovering, ready to pounce in numbers if there’s a poor touch at the back there. Attacking set pieces are a target, especially after seeing Cameroon conceded a couple goals from crosses already. Swerving those ones in towards Abby Erceg is the real deal.
And then, with all that, we just have to be the team that owns the big moments. Same old story because it’s a universal truth in a major tournament. We can’t be the team that goes close but not quite. We have to put our chances away, especially because the bigger the win, the bigger our chances. But first we simply have to win. Take care of what we can control, get that first monkey off the back, and if it wasn’t meant to be then so be it. But if we do win this game and miss out then we’ll know we were two minutes away from the knockouts in that Netherlands game. Not sure if that’s a consolation or nightmare material, leaning towards the latter, but whatever.
The Ferns have an extra day of rest between this game and the previous game compared to the last turnaround, plus they didn’t have nearly as far to travel. Ideally Sermanni would be rolling out a third straight unchanged line-up however CJ Bott’s broken wrist has ripped that idea up. Which means we need another right back. Ria Percival played the rest of the way there against Canada however not having her presence in the midfield, where she’s our best ball-winner, seems almost counter-productive – Cameroon have conceded 27 fouls with 5 yellow cards in two games so, you know, they’re not about to let those 50/50s go unchallenged.
Which would probably instead mean Katie Bowen playing RB instead and that’s not massively ideal for what it does to the midfield but that could be a gamble worth taking. Bowen plays RB for Utah Royals at club level and she started there against Wales recently too. She’s also an excellent crosser of the football… although the same is true of Ria Percival too. Sarah Morton would be your alternative alternative but it seems she’s mostly there in case of emergency. The other one is Rebekah Stott but with no Meikayla Moore we need Stotty at CB where she and Abby Erceg have been arguably our two best performers so far (shout outs to Erin Nayler and Ria Percival as well).
If that’s the way we do it then that could solve one issue and free up room for Annalie Longo to play from the start, getting one of our most technically skilful players out there for that extra creativity. Alternatively there’s the back three option with Anna Green starting which would allow Ali Riley and Katie Bowen (or Ria Percival) to play in much more attacking wingback positions. Cameroon won’t have the dangers out wide that both Netherlands and Canada had out there so that’s a legit option and it’s a formula we’ve prepared plenty for – one which works best against teams closer to our level where we shouldn’t get belted back into a back five most of the time. That’s the shape we ended in against Canada, albeit after Sarah Gregorius had been subbed off.
Decisions to be made. I’ll leave it up to the coach to figure all that out though, that’s his job not mine and this game, this one single game, is effectively what he’s been preparing for the entire time that he’s been around. And with that I’ve finally reached the point where there’s nothing left to say. We’re all caught up now and these are the final moments before clicking play on the series finale. Pour yourself something nice, grab an extra pillow, maybe a blanket too if it’s a chilly one, and settle in for the most important game the Football Ferns have ever played.
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