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First loss brings Japan quarter-final

New Zealand will take on Japan in a historic quarter-final showdown at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay after falling to their first loss of the tournament this morning, Ghana topping the group at their expense with a 2-0 win.

Heading into the final Group A meeting at a scorching hot Estadio Charrúa in Montevideo, both sides had already secured their place in the quarter-finals but the match was significant nonetheless as it would determine who they would meet in the last eight. With that in mind, Ghana coach Evans Adotey resisted the temptation to rest any of his key performers, fielding the same group of players that had previously earned comfortable victories over hosts Uruguay and Finland.

Kiwi counterpart Leon Birnie did not have the same luxury as he had several players sitting on the verge of a suspension with yellow cards and some tired bodies in his 21-strong squad after the gruelling nature of New Zealand’s first two matches. He therefore took the opportunity to make full use of his squad depth, making changes to the starting line-up for the first time in the tournament. Eight players were introduced to the eleven with only captain Aneka Mittendorff, goalkeeper Anna Leat and midfielder Amelia Abbott retaining their berths against the athletic Africans.

It was always going to be a tall order for an under-strength side to match one of the favourites to lift the World Cup and so it proved as Ghana recorded a third successive win to deservedly top the group.

But the reshuffled New Zealand line-up made it hard for the Group A winners, competing well across the entirety of the match and keeping them scoreless for over an hour. It took a second-half brace from Ghana captain Mukarama Abdulai – who has now scored six goals at this tournament – to finally separate the sides and Birnie was quick to pay tribute to the efforts of both his own charges and the classy Ghanians.

“We knew Ghana were going to be a tough challenge, they’re a very good, athletic side and when you’re playing in the heat like today it makes it even more challenging,” he said.

“We had the quarter-final in the back of our minds and had a number of players on cards or with injuries. There were also players that were just mentally and physically tired from the first two games and we had to balance that,” he added.

“What I really enjoyed today was that, by the end of the game, the girls had given everything they had. But sometimes it’s just not enough. Ghana were the better side, they deserved their three points and they deserved to top the group.”

Ghana shaded the possession stakes and also carved out far more opportunities, getting nine shots on target to New Zealand’s four. But the first sight of goal actually fell the way of the Oceania champions on nine minutes, a long throw from Mittendorff eventually breaking for Abbott, who brought the ball down well but put her controlled half volley over the bar.

Just seconds later, Abbott tried her luck again but was a long way out and her attempted chip bounced harmlessly wide. Abbott’s pair of efforts were as close as New Zealand would come in the first half as Ghana went on to dominate proceedings.

Vice-captain Leat was called into action on several occasions but most of Ghana’s attempts were of the hopeful, long-range variety as the New Zealand defence did well to prevent their opponents creating anything substantial.

Leat assumed the skipper’s armband when Mittendorff earned a well-earned rest for the second half while Abbott was also withdrawn just before the hour as Birnie’s thoughts began to turn towards this weekend’s quarter-final. Wisnewski was the player to come on for Abbott and she nearly made an immediate impact, bursting onto a bouncing ball in the box and firing a shot wide.

But Ghana went down the other end soon after to take the lead, a moment’s hesitation in defence costing New Zealand as Abdulai raced onto a lofted pass and dispatched it past Leat in the 61st minute. The Kiwis responded to falling behind by getting their first shot on target, Jayda Stewart receiving a throw in the box before swivelling and hitting her attempt straight at Ghana goalkeeper Grace Boadu.

Maya Hahn also found the target with a well-struck free kick as New Zealand went on to enjoy their strongest spell of pressure in the closing quarter of an hour. But they couldn’t find an equaliser and it was Ghana who instead scored next, Abdulai breaking down the right before driving home to complete her double with just a minute left on the clock.

Arabella Maynard then stung the gloves of Boadu in stoppage time with a strike from outside the box as Ghana held on to become the first team to keep Birnie’s side scoreless.

New Zealand will now take on Japan in the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup on Sunday morning at 9am (NZT), live on SKY Sport.

“We’ve defied the odds already in this tournament and we’re looking to do it again,” Birnie said.

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