The Black Sticks Women beat Italy 2-0 to set up a super funky semi final against Netherlands on Sunday morning. Aotearoa were the better team and made the most of Italy's defensive press that left a lot of space for the kiwis to attack into, although Italy also made life extremely difficult for themselves.
Italy started the game with a sketchy cross-field pass deep in their own defence that was intercepted by Olivia Merry, setting a tone for the game. Turning over possession in your own territory tends to lead directly to goal-scoring opportunities at this level of hockey and Italy gifted the kiwis plenty of these opportunities. After Sam Harrison scored the first goal sitting on the far post in the first quarter, Sam Charlton received a pass from Italy's defence and slotted home a reverse to put the kiwis 2-0 up early in the second half.
In the context of the Black Sticks struggling to really make the most of their opportunities in recent games, this game was another cause for slight concern. Their defence was severely tested in the second half with the Italians enjoying numerous penalty corner opportunities - they don't have a gun drag-flicker so they don't quite pose the same threat as other teams -and while they were helped by Italy's errors, the kiwis got the job done and fended off Italy's raids.
One big positive for the kiwis was the intensity of this game, especially as they prepare to face the Dutch who didn't lose a pool game and were slick in beating Spain 2-0 to book their semi final spot. Turnovers from both teams plagued the Aotearoa vs Italy game, but the physical nature of the midfield battle and the defensive work that the kiwis had to do, will put them in a strong position for the semi final.
Netherlands certainly won't present the same opportunities that the Italians did and will do much better with the chances they create themselves. Given that these errors and lack of world-class finishing from Italy played a part in the end result, the kiwis will face a far different challenge from the Dutch will need to be far more clinical in possession.
Netherlands have one of the best drag-flickers in the world in Caia van Maasakker, so there's already a point of difference from Italy and it won't just be a case of stopping the Dutch attack but limiting the penalty corner opportunities as well. Considering that Aotearoa gave up many penalty corners in the second half against Italy, if they do that against Netherlands they will likely lose.
As I've alluded to early in the tournament, playing a stronger team could play into Aotearoa's hands. That strong defensive unit and the work-rate of the kiwis will ensure that they are difficult to break down and they won't be too upset if the Dutch dominate possession. The speed, skill and enthusiasm of Harrison, Merry and Kelsey Smtih will be crucial as they are likely to not enjoy too many chances but will need to snap them up.
I still think the Black Sticks' best work comes when they play against better teams, teams who perhaps start as favourites. Not too many teams rampage forward like the kiwis - whether via a Stacey Michelsen burst or two passes up-field - and this will probably be their best hope against the Dutch. They'll need to do a far better job of converting their circle entries though and they won't get as many clear goal-scoring opportunities as they got against Italy.