U-20 women exit with heads high

Sam Tawharu of New Zealand is challenged by Blessing Agbomadzi of Ghana. FIFA via Getty Images

New Zealand have bowed out of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup with a 1-0 loss to Ghana but will return home with their heads held high after again competing well against a quality opponent.

Gareth Turnbull’s side had already put in a pair of outstanding performances against the Netherlands and hosts France, putting themselves in a position to progress past the group stages if they could claim a win over Ghana and hope that the Dutch could do them a favour in the other Group A match.

As the final pool matches were played simultaneously, New Zealand had no prior knowledge of the outcome between France and the Netherlands and knew they needed to focus on their own display to have any chance of going through anyway.

In a first half lacking in any real rhythm from either team, the action was evenly spread with Ghana only just shading the possession stakes. They also enjoyed more shots at goal but the African champions’ attempts were largely of the ambitious variety from distance and it was New Zealand who carved out the better opportunities.

The first of these arrived in the 10th minute when a Hannah Blake cross from the left was cleared out to Liz Anton, who played the ball back into a dangerous area for Maggie Jenkins to flick on to Samantha Tawharu. The striker went one-on-one with Martha Annan but couldn’t place her effort past the Ghana goalkeeper as New Zealand were denied the early goal they were looking for.

They had almost found themselves behind a few moments earlier when Anna Leat was forced to make an outstanding save at close range from a header by opposing captain Sandra Owusu-Ansah. That was the closest Ghana would come in the first half though with Leat scarcely troubled again before the break.

Annan was soon called into action again at the other end as Tawharu again had an attempt on target, directing a difficult header straight into the palms of the goalkeeper from an Aneka Mittendorff cross.

Jenkins tried her luck from outside the box in the 20th minute but scuffed her effort wide while Blake used her trademark skill to fashion a chance for herself a few minutes later but was at a tight angle and sliced her strike across the face of goal.

By the time half an hour had passed, New Zealand were actually all but out of the tournament with France having raced into a 3-0 lead against the Netherlands, thus effectively joining them in progressing from the group. But the Kiwis weren’t to know and kept looking to keep their own hopes alive, nearly breaking the deadlock again when Grace Jale headed a Jenkins corner onto the roof of the net under pressure.

Turnbull was forced into a change at half-time with skipper Malia Steinmetz – who had put her body on the line in bruising fashion against France and was in the wars again today – having to make way for Rose Morton.

The start of the second spell followed a similar pattern to the first with an excellent opportunity falling New Zealand’s way but the Oceania champions again did not manage to take it. Jenkins was the player left frustrated on this occasion after Tawharu flicked on a long throw from Mittendorff and she had the goal at her mercy but prodded a volley wide from the six-yard line.

It was by now looking like the footballing gods were not smiling on New Zealand and, despite plenty of endeavour from both teams, moments of quality in the final third proved hard to come by. The industrious Jenkins tried to find the top corner from long range but couldn’t get enough curl on her effort and was withdrawn seconds later as Turnbull injected the pace and trickery of Jacqui Hand into proceedings.

Soon after, Jale picked out Paige Satchell with a cut back and she appeared to have a pocket of room but was quickly shut down as her shot was deflected out for a corner.

New Zealand were made to pay for not taking those opportunities when Ghana, who had been beaten by France and the Netherlands in their previous matches, finally found the goal both sides had been toiling all afternoon for. With quarter of an hour remaining, Leat was left stranded as a sweetly-struck drive from Grace Asantewaa crashed off the underside of the crossbar and broke kindly for Ruth Anima to head home.

With France now having extended their lead to 4-0 in the other Group A match, all hope of progressing seemed lost for New Zealand but they were determined to at least finish on a high note and piled the pressure on in the dying stages.

Jale was at the heart of the action as the clock ticked down, seeing a volley blocked before a well-placed free kick was smartly saved. Ghana were still a threat themselves though and Leat needed to use every degree of her athleticism to tip an Asantewaa chip over the bar.

That kept it a 1-0 but New Zealand couldn’t find that elusive goal themselves and were left to reflect on the goalscoring chances they passed up.

“We’re bitterly disappointed in the outcome today,” Turnbull said.

“There’s no shame in losing to Ghana but I felt we did enough to win. We failed to execute in the final third though which is where it matters the most unfortunately,” he added.

“Overall, I think the World Cup has been a good learning tool for everybody involved and hopefully it’s a platform for many of this group to transition towards the senior side.”

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