This country’s brightest young female players have put in the performance of their short lives with European heavyweights Spain needing a pair of late goals to secure a 2-0 win at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan this morning.
The contrast between the sides going into the contest could not have been greater with Spain considered one of world football’s superpowers and having just earned a 6-0 win over hosts Jordan while New Zealand are among the tournament underdogs and opened their campaign with a 5-0 defeat to Mexico.
But the plucky Kiwis refused to be overawed by their more illustrious rivals – who finished runners-up in the previous edition of the World Cup two years ago – and executed the game plan of coach Gareth Turnbull almost perfectly at the Al Hassan International Stadium in Irbid.
They were on the verge of claiming a famous result and must have thought they had nearly done enough before Spain captain Laia Aleixandri and substitute Claudia Pina both scored in the last 10 minutes to finally break New Zealand’s resistance.
“We had to give Spain the respect that they deserve because they’re a world-class football nation,” Turnbull said.
“So we knew by trying to play our normal style and strategy we’d be up against it. We played a little bit more defensively, looked to counter attack and the girls stuck to their tasks,” he added.
“We tried to be a threat when we had possession in transition, though not as much as we would have liked, and it was a really good effort for 80 minutes. It took a world-class goal to finally break our spirits and, Spain being the classy outfit they are, they probably deserved a second goal to be fair.”
New Zealand went into the match well aware of the threat such a talented Spanish outfit would pose and, as a result, set themselves up in a more cautious manner than in the first-up loss to Mexico. The tweaks to the structure worked as planned with Spain enjoying plenty of the ball but being left frustrated by their inability to break through the New Zealand rear guard.
Turnbull’s charges showed plenty of positive intent when they did have the ball though, looking to play out from the back and even creating a couple of opportunities to claim what would have been one of the most memorable victories in New Zealand’s footballing history.
The best of these arrived in stoppage time at the end of the first half, the skilful and speedy Jacqui Hand curling an effort towards goal from an acute angle wide on the right but seeing it go agonisingly over the bar.
Most of the Spanish danger was expected to come from star striker Lorena Navarro – who already has one hand on the golden boot after scoring five times against Jordan – but she was well shackled by the outstanding New Zealand defence and had only a few half-sights of goal.
When Spain did manage to find the target, they were met with a goalkeeper in inspired form. East Coast Bays custodian Anna Leat is only 15-years-old but belied her tender years with an accomplished display that included impeccable handling and a string of fine saves, particularly in the second half as Spain’s desperation to get on the scoreboard increased.
Having made it into the sheds with the scores locked at nil-all, New Zealand could well have taken a shock lead soon after the restart when Emma Main met a cross from Hand at the near post but prodded her effort just wide.
That was as good as it got for the Kiwis as an attacking force though as their heroic defending and Leat’s impressive efforts took centre stage over the next half hour.
Just when it seemed they were on course to grab a crucial point, Aleixandri stepped up to lead by example and it was certainly a goal worth waiting for. In the 80th minute, the Spanish skipper received the ball some 25 yards out from goal and proceeded to arrow a strike right into the top corner, leaving Leat with no chance.
It was two just five minutes later when Pina made the desired impact off the bench, latching onto a defence-splitting pass from fellow substitute Nerea Eizaguirre before coolly slotting home.
Turnbull was proud of each one of his players but had particular praise for the contribution of ‘Alosi Bloomfield, who joined Main and Saskia Vosper as one of three changes from the side that started against Mexico.
“We gave her a job to do in terms of man-marking Navarro, who scored five goals in the last game and is the world’s leading female goal scorer in all internationals in the last 18 months. In the end, they had to sub her off so full credit to ‘Alosi,” he said.
“We were always going to try to win the game so as soon as she came off we took ‘Alosi off as well and replaced her with a forward. We wanted to press a bit higher up the pitch, be more of an attacking threat and see if we could get a goal.”
New Zealand will now continue their search for a second ever win at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in facing hosts Jordan on Friday.
Story courtesy of New Zealand Football