Matildas extend sequence despite Ferns’ fightback

by Jeremy Ruane:
with the compliments of www.sportswebsoccer.com

Women’s International Friendly – Tri-Match Series 2015
Friday 13 February, 2015 – Bill McKinlay Park, Auckland, New Zealand

New Zealand 2 (Gregorius 56′,83′)
lost to
Australia 3 (Van Egmond 8′, Heyman 11′, Foord 30′)

 

Australia’s Matildas staved off a stirring second half comeback from the Football Ferns to prevail 3-2 in an action-packed encounter at Bill McKinlay Park on February 12, as both nations continued their preparations for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Finals in Canada later this year.

The win means the Matildas have extended their unbeaten sequence over their Kiwi counterparts to 27 matches, only two of which have been drawn. You have to go back to October 1994 for the last time New Zealand downed their trans-tasman rivals, and three years prior to that for the last occasion they achieved the feat on home soil.

After a tight opening phase, the Football Ferns came desperately close to opening the scoring in the eighth minute. Kirsty Yallop released Ali Riley down the left, allowing her to work the ball inside to Rosie White then take up a better position for a return pass.

It duly arrived, after “The Golazo Girl” had neatly controlled then shielded the ball with two gold-clad opponents on her shoulders. Riley’s resulting cross arced over all-comers at the near post, but lurking beyond the far one was Katie Hoyle, who lashed her angled volley over the bar.

It was a miss which was to have severe repercussions for the Football Ferns, who found themselves two goals down within four minutes of firing the game’s first shot in anger.

Emily Van Egmond fair smashed home a thirty-five yard thunderbolt into the top left-hand corner of Erin Nayler’s goal in the ninth minute, then looked on three minutes later as Caitlin Foord’s deft flick over Abby Erceg allowed Michelle Heyman to get in behind the defence and drill an unerring angled drive across Nayler into the far corner.

2-0, and the Football Ferns faced with not only a mountain to climb on the night, but the burden of history bearing down on them again, as their West Island rivals looked to extend their record in trans-tasman tussles still further – there isn’t an Australian female footballer alive who wants to be in the Matildas team which the Football Ferns finally conquers, of that you can be certain!

And that eagerness to avoid being part of ignominy was evident in driving the Matildas on in this encounter, although a shot across the bows from Annalie Longo straight from the resumption upon conceding the second goal gave the visitors a reminder that their opponents weren’t going to buckle easily.

If anything, it spurred the Australians on in their pursuit of a third goal. Katrina Gorry was narrowly astray with a twenty-yarder in the fourteenth minute, while from the resulting goal-kick, Nayler was nearly caught in possession by Heyman on the edge of her penalty area as she played the ball out to Erceg.

The ‘keeper redeemed herself with a fine fingertip save to deny Foord seconds later, then flung herself to her right to keep out a twenty-five yarder from Gorry, who rattled the crossbar with a free-kick from the same range in the twentieth minute.

The Football Ferns, meanwhile, weren’t just performing nervously in their defensive third. They were seeking a way back into the match during this spell of Australian dominance, with a Riley cross, a Ria Percival free-kick and sound target-man play by both White and Amber Hearn giving home fans cause for optimism in this period.

Australia weren’t to be denied, however, and after Van Egmond had gone close with a curling effort, and Lisa De Vanna had been unable to capitalise upon a punched clearance by Nayler, a third goal duly arrived on the half-hour.

Yallop – far from her finest first half performance, and she’ll be the first to admit it – was caught in possession by Gorry, who swiftly slipped Foord through the inside left channel. The striker slipped her shot beyond the advancing figure of Nayler to leave the 2,351 fans present hoping their heroines could avoid being humiliated.

They wasted little time in taking the game to the Matildas. Longo was hauled down by Foord, who earned the wrath of referee Nick Waldron for tactics more suited to a rugby pitch!

Percival fizzed the 33rd minute free-kick into the far post, where Hannah Wilkinson’s header was blocked by the massed ranks of Matildas defenders. So, too, was White’s attempt to slam home the rebound.

Eleven minutes later, the popular striker was once more at the heart of a meaningful Football Ferns attack, controlling the ball neatly on receipt of Longo’s cross to the near post before setting up Riley with a shot which the fullback sent thundering into the hoardings beside the near post.

That prompted a final first half waltz downfield by the Matildas, De Vanna leading the charge. As Erceg dived in to tackle her, the speedster slipped the ball into Heyman’s stride, the goalscorer promptly battering a shot past Nayler and narrowly across the face of goal.

3-0 down at half-time against your arch-rivals. Feelings of despair take over. Then, a ray of hope springs to mind – the greatest football club on the planet have been in this very situation, and when they came out for the second half in Istanbul ten years ago, they went on to win the European Cup for the fifth time …

Katie Bowen’s entry to the fray in place of Yallop was the lone personnel change Football Ferns coach Tony Readings made for the second half. All else hinged on the players’ personal pride, self-belief, and their collective desire to right the wrongs of the first half by performing to the standards of which they have repeatedly proven themselves capable in games against teams of similar or even higher calibre.

Initially, the Matildas threatened, Nayler plunging to her right to keep out another long-range strike from the ever-dangerous Gorry – it’s easy to see why she’s Asian women’s football’s best player on the strength of her performances in this series, and this despite playing with a heavily strapped knee.

But after that 52nd minute effort, there was only one team in it. And just like Korea DPR two days previously, the Football Ferns laid siege to the Matildas’ goal. Unlike the 2014 Asian Games winners, however, they gained reward for doing so.

Hope eternal was unleashed in the 57th minute, when Sarah Gregorius, who had replaced White just five minutes earlier, rose on the far post to head home Percival’s pinpoint corner. Hello …

Four minutes later, the scorer was not far away from getting on the end of a cross from Wilkinson, whose driving run took her through a couple of challenges to the by-line, carrying with her the increased optimism of both her revitalised team-mates and their fans along the way.

Three minutes later, Gregorius was in again – the Matildas couldn’t cope with her pace and direct, purposeful, terrier-like runs. Only debutant goalkeeper Casey Dumont’s alertness thwarted the striker on this occasion, while the ‘keeper did well under aerial pressure from Wilkinson soon after, as Percival sought to score direct from a corner in the 66th minute.

Still they pressed. Hoyle, Betsy Hassett – she was a revelation upon taking to the pitch – and Gregorius combined on the left, with the last-mentioned whipping in a cross to the near post. Hearn, racing in on an angled run, met with a sumptuous glancing header which left Dumont beaten all ends up but flashed narrowly past the far post.

That effort twenty minutes from time was followed three minutes later by an angled ball forward by Erceg, which allowed Gregorius to hit the turbo button once more. Racing to the right by-line, she crossed the ball first-time on the run, Hearn, arriving on the far post, her intended target. Clare Polkinghorne hooked the ball to safety.

If Australia thought they had weathered the storm, they had another thing coming. Into the final ten minutes, and yet another free-kick conceded by the Matildas – referee Waldron could have filled his notebook with cases of persistent infringement – invited Percival to produce her best once more.

Sure enough, she did, a gem of a delivery to the far post where both Wilkinson and Erceg had eyes on the prize. So, too, did Dumont, whose handling on a debut she won’t forget in a hurry was exemplary.

Seconds later, and just as had happened at this venue when the Football Ferns hosted the Matildas almost five years to the day in 2010, Percival was crudely taken out by a yellow-clad opponent, this time on the touchline, right next to the railings in front of the crowded stand.

On the previous occasion, Colette McCallum’s scything challenge ruled New Zealand’s fullback out of international action for seven months. This time, Alanna Kennedy’s clattering tackle earned the offender a yellow card, but served only to harden the resolve of its target, who, upon recovering, thumbed through her free-kick repertoire until she reached the letter R.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and Percival’s delivery on this occasion was delicious, a wickedly struck swerving effort towards the far post which saw all-comers rise for it, and Dumont land awkwardly afterwards. As she hit the deck, so did the ball, right at the feet of Gregorius, who stabbed home from six yards to set up a grandstand finish – 3-2.

After first starter Dumont had departed the fray on a stretcher – Brianna Davey took over the twixt the sticks on a night Alex Chidiac and Amy Harrison also made their Matildas debuts, another Percival free-kick had the visitors on tenterhooks. Their relief when Hassett hammered a shot over the bar was palpable.

It inspired a late riposte by the Matildas, who had barely seen the whites of Nayler’s eyes for over half-an-hour. They saw her white gloves pluck Elise Kellond-Knight’s free-kick off the head of Kyah Simon to conclude this stoppage time raid, and ignite a final Football Ferns raid, initially featuring Riley and Hassett.

It culminated in Erceg unleashing a ball forward which Hearn met with a steepling volleyed effort, the ball arcing towards the target until Davey grabbed the ball under the bar to prevent the Football Ferns from snatching a dramatic draw.

Instead, the Matildas held on for a 3-2 win, although they got their comeuppances in the penalty shoot-out held afterwards, the Football Ferns prevailing 4-3 on spot-kicks in a simulated shoot-out both teams agreed to hold to replicate the potential for such a situation arising when they reach the knock-out stages of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Finals.

Both teams now head to the northern hemisphere to continue their preparations for Canada 2015. The Matildas are Cyprus Cup-bound, before indulging in a lengthy training camp in Europe.

Next up for the Football Ferns, meanwhile, are two games in Spain in early March, followed by matches against the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup finalists – they take on the USA in St Louis in April, and Japan in Kagawa in May, before heading across the Pacific to take on Holland, Canada, China et al in their pursuit of the trophy.

One thing’s for sure, Tony Readings’ charges will be hoping their performances between now and the final in Vancouver in July will be far better than that witnessed in the opening forty-five minutes at Bill McKinlay Park, the period in which the Matildas lay the foundations for extending their unbeaten sequence over their arch-rivals still further.

Match details

New Zealand (Football Ferns):    Nayler (gk); Percival, Stott, Erceg, Riley; Longo (Hassett, 58), Hoyle, Hearn, Yallop (Bowen, 46); Wilkinson (Pereira, 82), White (Gregorius, 52)

Australia (Matildas):    Dumont (gk)(Davey, 86); Raso, Polkinghorne, Brogan, Kellond-Knight; Polias, Gorry (Kennedy, 62 (booked, 82)), Van Egmond (Luik, 90); De Vanna (Chidiac, 90), Heyman (Simon, 62), Foord (booked, 32) (Harrison, 62)

Referee:    Nick Waldron