The Ultimate New Zealand Soccer Website

Football Ferns Hold World Champions To Draw
by Jeremy Ruane

New Zealand's Football Ferns maintained their impressive progress towards Canada 2015 at the Tosu Stadium on June 20, holding reigning FIFA Women's World Cup  holders Japan to a 1-1 draw on a rain-soaked evening in Fukuoka.

Incredibly, it's a match the Football Ferns could - and perhaps should - have won, given they were playing opponents who were reduced to ten players on the stroke of half-time after captain Aya Miyama committed her second bookable offence of the match.

New Zealand began solidly, enjoying the better of possession in the first five minutes before Nadeshiko Japan started to get their one-touch passing game into gear, and peeled a couple of lightning-fast raids which foundered on a combination of solid defensive play and over-hit passes skimming off the rain-slicked playing surface.

Japan were gifted the first chance of the match in the twelfth minute when Abby Erceg - not for the first time in the match, as things transpired - was guilty of some wayward distribution, much to the delight of Yuki Ogimi, the beneficiary on this occasion.

Her shot matched Erceg's pass for inaccuracy, but served its purpose as a range-finder, as the visitors would soon find out. Before then, however, the Football Ferns went close themselves, Hannah Wilkinson catching Rumi Utsugi in possession, then quickly linking with Kirsty Yallop and Betsy Hassett to present Sarah Gregorius with a shooting chance which curled past the post.

Seconds after Erin Nayler had confidently plucked a Miyama cross from the left, Japan opened the scoring via the opposite flank. Mizuho Sakaguchi pinged the ball out wide to overlapping fullback Saori Ariyoshi, who took it on in her stride before delivering an absolutely gorgeous cross which any striker would love to receive.

Ogimi was no different, darting in behind the defence on the angle to expertly meet the ball on the volley and send it soaring past Nayler, who could do nothing but clutch at air as this technically superb goal, both in conception and execution, found the net.

1-0 to the world champions after 21 minutes, and in the five or so minutes which followed, the Football Ferns looked a tad rattled, so much so that they nearly conceded in similar fashion five minutes after going behind.

Ariyoshi combined with Nahomi Kawasumi on the right, with the latter's neatly angled cross to the near post finding Miyama ghosting in unmarked. She sent a volley sizzling past the near post defended by the fast-advancing figure of Nayler, who spilled a Miyama cross two minutes later after Katie Hoyle and Hassett had got themselves into a muddle inside their own half of the pitch.

The Football Ferns cleared the danger and, in doing so, set about the task of getting back on level terms, something they nearly did in the 33rd minute. Hassett caught Saka Kumagai in possession, and Yallop seized on the situation immediately, lobbing the ball across into the stride of Ria Percival, who was a tireless outlet all game long on the right flank.

The fullback unleashed a viciously struck low-angled drive which skimmed across the wet playing surface towards the far corner of the net, forcing Nadeshiko goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto to plunge to her right to parry the ball away.

Only as far as Amber Hearn, however, with the Football Ferns' all-time leading markswoman pouncing on the rebound in an instant. Right with her, however, was Azusa Iwashimizu, who blocked the striker's shot for a corner.

Hoyle delivered the set-piece, and both Erceg, at the near post, and Rebekah Stott, on the far post, made contact with the ball as it sped across the goalmouth, neither central defender getting enough purchase on it to direct a header on target.

Eight minutes before half-time, Ali Riley sent Hannah Wilkinson away down the left, the powerful front-runner outsmarting Ariyoshi before driving the ball across towards Gregorius, who turned it on for Hearn to pursue, only for both players to see Fukumoto's anticipation of the danger foil the Football Ferns on this occasion.

Gregorius and Hearn combined again four minutes later, the former setting up the latter after being picked out by Yallop. Hearn's deflected twenty-five yarder was grabbed by Fukumoto, leaving the visitors with the challenge of overcoming a one-goal deficit during the second spell, but only with ten players facing them.

In the shadows of the half-time whistle, Miyama, for the second time in the game, committed a bookable offence for what seemed nothing more than a slightly mis-timed challenge on a wet playing surface. The referee had other ideas, however, leaving Japan to contemplate life without their captain for the balance of the match.

If ever the Football Ferns were going to make a statement on the world stage, these circumstances were tailor-made for it. A goal down away from home against the now numerically challenged reigning world champions … the game was theirs
for the taking.

They set about the task with a vengeance, dominating possession and territory to such an extent that Japan spent large periods of the half hemmed inside their own half of the pitch, a situation which rendered ineffective the talents of former FIFA Women's World Player of the Year, Homare Sawa.

For all the threat they posed, however, the Football Ferns offered very little in the way of threats on goal during the next half-hour, safe for one outstanding effort which deserved far better fate.

It came six minutes into the second spell, and saw Hoyle pick out Wilkinson with a lofted pass which the striker controlled on her chest before swivelling to unleash a dipping volley on the turn from the edge of the penalty area.

Japan's second half goalkeeper, Ayumi Kaihori, could only look on in horror as the ball arced over her, only for that look to change to one of relief as the ball smacked square against the crossbar.

It rebounded down towards the incoming figure of Gregorius, whose attempt to turn the ball home was matched by a fine reaction save from the fast-recovering figure of Kaihori, who smothered another effort from Gregorius fourteen minutes later, as the striker raced through upon receipt of a through ball from Hassett.

Just prior to this effort, Nayler had to race out of her penalty area to clear the danger posed by Ogimi, as she raced through in pursuit of Utsugi's relieving clearance. The sight of Japan offering an attacking threat in the second spell was rare indeed, but while they retained the lead, scoring again wasn't their prime objective.

Scoring an equaliser was New Zealand's goal, however, with coach Tony Readings opting to unleash Annalie Longo into the mix half-way through the second spell in place of Yallop, who had been pushing forward from midfield in support of the attack.

The substitute's first contribution of note was a teasing seventieth minute cross following a short corner, which Ariyoshi headed clear before Erceg could capitalise. Longo's next contribution of note, eight minutes from time, was decidedly more rewarding from the visitors' viewpoint.

The equaliser was sparked off by Gregorius' ball down the right for Percival to pursue, all the way to the by-line. From there, the overlapping fullback pulled the ball back into the stride of Longo, arriving some ten yards out from goal, the same Longo who had yet to score a goal at senior level on the world stage.

There's no better time to break that mould when you're chasing an equaliser against the reigning world champions, of course. Longo promptly let rip, the ball's speed too fast for Kaihori to react in time - 1-1, with the delighted scorer's reaction partly one of disbelief that, after 51 appearances for her country, that long-awaited first goal had finally materialised.

And with eight minutes left, there was still time to put the world champions to the sword. Could the Football Ferns do the seemingly unthinkable, and make a statement which would reverberate around the women's footballing world?

They had their chances to do so. Substitute Helen Collins was introduced to the fray immediately after the equaliser, but it was Gregorius who was first to feature in the pursuit of a winner.

Charging forward in the 86th minute, she found Hearn inside her, but her shot was blocked. Gregorius latched onto the rebound, angled onto her left foot and let fly from the edge of the penalty area.

Kaihori gratefully smothered this effort, but her eyes were out on saucers as the game entered stoppage time, Hassett and Riley having combined to send Collins storming into the penalty area on the left, with Nadeshiko's goalkeeper all that stood between the striker and a historic victory for the Football Ferns.

Kaihori narrowed the angle swiftly, forcing Collins to shoot at goal from an angle which was becoming increasingly acute by the second. The net rippled, and New Zealand fans watching on TV 9,000 kilometres away collectively cheered, only for their joy to swiftly be stifled by the sight of the ball ricocheting off the side-netting into the hoardings.

Such are the small margins which decide football matches, in this case, a 1-1 draw between reigning women's world champions Japan and the fast-improving Football Ferns, who will rightly be delighted with this result, but will doubtless wonder, in days to come, if, with a touch more self-belief, they could have achieved even more.

Nadeshiko Japan:     

Fukumoto (Kaihori, 46); Ariyoshi, Iwashimizu, Kumagai, Utsugi; Kawasumi (Maruyama, 78), Sawa (booked, 36) (Tanaka, 59), Sakaguchi, Ando (Ohno, 59), Miyama (booked, 30, 45 - sent off); Ogimi

Football Ferns:     

Nayler; Percival, Stott, Erceg, Riley (booked, 81); Yallop (Longo, 66), Hoyle, Hearn, Hassett; Gregorius, Wilkinson (Collins, 83)

Matildas:     Davey; Allen (booked, 60), Kennedy (Carroll, 83), Polkinghorne, Catley; Butt (Gorry, 73), Uzunlar, Van Egmond; Kerr, Heyman (Gielnik, 87), Kellond-Knight
Football Ferns:     Nayler; Percival (booked, 68), Stott, Erceg, Riley; Longo (Yallop, 66), Hoyle (booked, 40), Hearn, Hassett; Wilkinson, Gregorius (White, 74)
Referee:     Gin Liang (China)