The New Zealand U-20 women’s team will face the biggest match of their young lives tonight when they take on France in what is effectively a showdown for a place in the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.
Leon Birnie’s side currently sit second on the Group C standings behind leaders USA and will go into this evening’s encounter with a slight advantage as they are a point ahead of third-placed France, meaning a draw should be enough to see them through – provided Ghana don’t spring a huge upset by beating the States.
Both games kick off simultaneously so the equation for the Kiwis is simple – do all they can to earn the full three points and become just the second ever New Zealand side to make the quarter-finals of a World Cup.
They would follow in the footsteps of the 2014 U-20 women’s side in doing so but know it will be a real battle to get there against a France outfit who have proven a particularly tough nut to crack. The classy French showed their ability in holding the hugely-talented USA to a draw and followed that up with another tie against Ghana, leaving New Zealand to try to become the first team to beat them.
“It’s going to be challenging, we knew coming into this World Cup that all three games would be very difficult and it will be no different in the French game,” Birnie said.
“But the main thing is that we’re in a position now where our destiny is in our own hands.”
Although France are yet to record a victory at this tournament, Birnie is in no doubt about their quality and knows his side must be at its best.
“The French are going to be technically very good, their movement off the ball and game understanding is excellent. If we give them too much time and space then we’ll have to be very careful they don’t just play through us. In their games against the USA and Ghana, they created a lot of opportunities but just didn’t take them so we have to mindful of that and really focused for the full 90 minutes,” he said.
“But we feel we’re in a good space, we have a game plan and I know the players will do their best to execute that. We’re all fit, healthy and ready to go – we’re really looking forward to the challenge.”
New Zealand have put themselves on the verge of a quarter-final berth after kicking off their campaign with a 1-0 win over Ghana before competing well against the USA in a 3-1 loss. The goal-scoring heroines so far have been forward Tayla Christensen, who came on to grab a late winner against Ghana, and midfielder Isabella Coombes.
Both strikes will live long in the memories of each player and Coombes’ effort is likely to be on highlights reels for years to come as it was of rare quality. With New Zealand searching for a way back into the game at 2-0 down, a clever corner routine was partially cleared to the Waikato native on the edge of the area and she unleashed a perfectly-placed volley that arced over the goalkeeper for one of the finest goals scored by a Kiwi on the global stage.
“Paige (Satchell) put it back in after the corner and I wasn’t being marked – it bounced straight out to me so I hit it first time and it just went in,” Coombes said.
“To score my first goal at a World Cup was a great feeling. It was definitely the most memorable goal I’ve ever scored and I don’t think there could be any better feeling.”
One of the biggest challenges of playing in the tropical climate of Papua New Guinea has been the stifling heat in Port Moresby and that will become even more of an issue against France. Each of New Zealand’s previous games have been in the cooler evening time slot but today’s clash is set to kick off at 4pm local time, when the sun is still particularly brutal.
The heat and quality of opposition will make the French encounter every bit as tricky as expected and Coombes is under no illusions as to the size of the task at hand.
“I think we’re really going to have to lift our game,” she said.
“We’ve watched some footage of France and they’re a quality side, very technical. They’re going to be able to deal with the heat well because they’ve already played in two 4pm matches. So we’re really going to have to put everything on the line if we want to beat them and go through to the quarter-finals.”
New Zealand will also be in action at a different stadium than their earlier group matches with this evening’s clash taking place at Bava Park in Port Moresby. The match will be screened live on SKY Sport 4 at 7pm (NZT).
Story courtesy of New Zealand Football