After beating Australia 2-0, Aotearoa sit at the top of Pool B in the World Hockey League Semi Final Brussels. The kiwis were once again clinical at penalty corner time as defender Brooke Neal scored twice from the set-piece, which when you consider that Olivia Merry got the Black Sticks' only goal against Spain from a penalty corner, highlights an efficient penalty corner set up. That's largely thanks to the presence of both Merry and Neal in a double-bracket, two options of equal threat.
Aotearoa will play Belgium tomorrow, with the host nation coming off a 9-0 win over Malaysia. The Black Sticks are one of three teams who have 6 points thus far; Australia have 6 points but have play three games while Netherlands lead the other pool from two games, although Pool A doesn't look as strong as Pool B and the Dutch should stroll through pool play.
As expected, Aotearoa showed off their defensive capabilities and snuff out attacking raid after attacking raid from Australia. The only real danger came when Australia surged forward on a counter-attack, yet there was always a stray stick getting in the way from defenders Brooke Neal, Liz Thompson, Ella Gunson and Stacey Michelsen. Coach Mark Hager kept this back-four on the field for much of the game and with good reason as they form one of the best defensive groups in the tournament, especially with Sam Charlton and Pippa Hayward sitting in front of the back-four.
Michelsen was once again the focal point in attack as her ability to beat a player one-on-one saw opportunities to turn poor field position into an attacking sniff. This comes with the Black Sticks Women tending to lean towards a back-four, which differs from the majority of international hockey as they take push one of those defenders into a central midfield role. As Michelsen bursts forward more often than not when she gets the ball, having a back-four ensures that the kiwis are well set up to deal with a turnover and they were rarely left vulnerable at the back despite Michelsen venturing forward.
This also enables the Black Sticks to vary their attack. In the first stanza there was a tendency to enter the attacking zone through the middle of the field, yet when the Black Sticks asserted their dominance, they went around Australia as well as looking to attack through the middle. Michelsen glided past Australians on the outside and with Thompson operating down the left flank, Aotearoa are well equipped to hold possession and pepper the circle.
With another tough encounter tomorrow against Belgium, Aotearoa will have to repeat the dose and limit counter-attacking opportunities against them. Most of Australia's attacking movements started with a kiwi carrying the ball too much, getting caught with their heads down as they dribbled into the attacking zone. Michelsen was guilty of this numerous times, although more often than not she breaks a defender's ankles so you have to accept that and with the kiwi strikers not quite connecting as they'd hope, they isolated themselves and gave up possession.