The New Zealand Herald

Ferns’ mission gets much tougher

First-up Olympics loss to Australian rivals a serious blow to Tom Sermanni’s under-prepared team

- Michael Burgess

The Football Ferns’ tough challenge at the Tokyo has got much more difficult, after a 2-1 loss to Australia. Placed in a group with the world champion United States and European powerhouse­s Sweden, the Ferns had to get some kind of result against their transtasma­n rivals, to have any hope of progressin­g into the knockout stages.

But they never looked likely, after giving up two first-half goals, though Ferns substitute Gabi Rennie grabbed a consolatio­n goal in the 91st minute.

The scoreline could have been more emphatic, but for several impressive saves from Erin Nayler.

The New Zealand keeper, coming off a difficult season with Reading where she only had one game, had a busy night, though will rue a poor clearance which opened the door for the Matildas’ first goal.

The Ferns battled away, but managed only three shots on target and didn’t force their first corner until the 85th minute.

But Rennie’s goal — on her debut — was a special memory — as she glanced a header into the far corner.

The Ferns struggled to gain a foothold in the first half, but improved after halftime, in a more assertive display and looked significan­tly better when they adjusted to a back four.

Abby Erceg was superb in a beaten side, often well positioned and keeping Chelsea striker Sam Kerr relatively quiet. But few others could match her standards; to surprise at a pinnacle event the majority of your team need to have the game of their lives, but too many Ferns were a shade below their best.

There were some mitigating factors; the Ferns were playing their first competitiv­e game in 500 days, after being unable to assemble since the Algarve Cup in March 2020 — an unpreceden­ted build-up for any New Zealand team. Their opponents had managed five games since April.

The Ferns had some encouragin­g early moments of possession, in a nervy start from both sides.

However, once Australia settled into their rhythm, they began to dominate. Ferns coach Tom Sermanni had opted for a 3-4-3 formation, but its success depended on wing backs CJ Bott and Ali Riley being able to get forward, with the

defensivel­y oriented Katie Bowen and Ria Percival in the middle of the park.

The Matildas took a deserved lead, as Tameka Yallop drove a powerful near post finish past Nayler after being set up by Kerr.

New Zealand responded well but Australia looked much more likely and extended their lead with Kerr eluding Moore at the near post to power home.

Hannah Wilkinson never stopped working, and her far-post cross was cushioned back into the path of Rennie, who finished superbly in injury time.

The Ferns face the US tomorrow.

 ?? Getty Images ?? Abby Erceg battles with Sam Kerr of Australia in the Football Ferns’ opening loss.
Getty Images Abby Erceg battles with Sam Kerr of Australia in the Football Ferns’ opening loss.

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