France End Junior Ferns' World Cup Hopes
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Story by Jeremy Ruane
The Junior Ferns' hopes of making back-to-back FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup quarter-finals evaporated at Bava Park in Port Moresby on November 21, as France comfortably accounted for Leon Birnie's charges 2-0 to secure a spot in the last eight at New Zealand's expense.
From the outset, the French proved themselves the superior combination, requiring just five minutes to get into the groove. Captain Delphine Cascarino - a menace down the right all game long - was released by Clara Mateo and got in behind Sarah Morton, who managed to recover and get a foot in.
But she only succeeded in directing the ball straight to Marie-Charlotte Leger, whose ten yard drive was splendidly parried by Nadia Olla - she's had a terrific tournament. The Junior Ferns were able to tidy things up from this, while a vital block by Issy Coombes in the twelfth minute denied Juliane Gathrat's drive from the edge of the area, following a partly cleared corner.
New Zealand's first threatening raid took sixteen minutes to materialise, and saw Martine Puketapu taken down by Hawa Cissoko, presenting Daisy Cleverey with a quality set-piece opportunity.
She wasted it, however, and from the resulting goal-kick, France opened the scoring. Cascarino linked with Maelle Garbino, whose incisive pass rewarded the angled run of Leger, in between Meikayla Moore and Liz Anton. The flank player took one touch to control the ball before angling it across the diving figure of Olla and into the far corner of the net.
It was a blow which the Junior Ferns compounded by failing to retain possession in their quest to redress the balance. All too often, hard-earned ball was cheaply conceded after one or two passes, with the need to keep the ball seemingly not an option compared with the 'get it forward as quickly as possible' approach which was all too often employed, for no reward.
France gratefully accepted the gifts, but took their time in creating further chances after opening the scoring. It wasn't until the half-hour mark that they next threatened, with Garbino directing a shot over the target, a feat matched by Grace Geyoro six minutes later, after Cascarino had spotted her run from deep.
Six minutes before half-time, the Junior Ferns finally got within range of the whites of the posts defended by goalkeeper Mylene Chavas. Jasmine Pereira worked an opening for Puketapu, who turned Estelle Cascarino, only for the defender to block the striker's shot. The well-performed Sakina Karchaoui cleared the danger before Paige Satchell could pounce.
Karchaoui featured in France's next raid, her storming run down the left rewarded by Estelle Cascarino's ball out of defence. The fullback tore into the penalty area before rolling the ball across goal for Mateo to tuck home, but the striker was three strides behind it, and the opportunity went begging.
Right on half-time, a Cleverley free-kick picked out Anton, whose looping header presented Chavas with her first save of the match. She'd had little to do throughout proceedings to date, and that situation continued in the second spell, soon after the start of which the Junior Ferns found themselves with a mountain to climb.
Straight from the kick-off, Karchaoui roared down the left and got the better of both Sophie Stewart-Hobbs and Moore before setting up Garbino. Only Cleverley's tracking prevented the striker from doubling France's lead, but it merely delayed the inevitable by a matter of seconds.
Gathrat worked a one-two on the right with fullback Heloise Mansuy, allowing the midfielder space from which she fired a cross into the danger zone. Moore failed to clear it, much to the delight of Mateo, who was lurking beyond her and afforded Olla no chance whatsoever from ten yards - 2-0.
A minute later, the Junior Ferns' hopes were dealt another blow as Emma Rolston, herself having come on as a first half substitute for Grace Jale, had her ankle crudely stomped on by Estelle Cascarino after the ball had gone, leaving the striker in evident agony.
One dreads to think of the number of injuries and setbacks Rolston has suffered while playing the game she loves, but this really was a nasty-looking job, designed with ligament damage in mind - make no mistake, there was a fair degree of intent in this challenge, one of the worst this writer has seen in thirty years of covering women's football.
That the perpetrator had the audacity to protest her innocence to Peruvian referee Silvia Reyes in the immediate aftermath was laughable. That the referee only booked the offender was also - the punishment definitely didn't fit the crime on this occasion.
France survived Moore's resulting free-kick, and the subsequent corner from Cleverley, from which they launched a counter-attack, Mateo and Garbino leading the charge before substitute Louise Fleury stung the gloves of Olla with a low drive.
In the 56th minute, Delphine Cascarino and Garbino worked a one-two from a corner which saw the French captain flight a cross to the far post, where Cissoko was looming large. Olla got enough of a hand on the ball to divert it away from where the defender was expecting to head it home, forcing Cissoko to readjust - in vain, as it transpired.
For a brief spell after the hour mark, the Junior Ferns dominated proceedings, and should have pulled at least one goal back. Yet another foul on Puketapu - she withstood a fair bit of punishment in this match - resulted in Cleverley clipping in a free-kick which Pereira met with a powerful header, albeit one lacking in accuracy.
Seconds later, a quick Cleverley free-kick, after Puketapu was felled once more, caught France napping, with both Pereira and Moore in on goal with just Chavas to beat.
The striker's unchallenged glancing header, from inside the six-yard box, flashed inches past the far post, and Pereira didn't need telling - that was the moment when she had to score if the Junior Ferns harboured hopes of mounting a comeback.
Her team-mates rallied to support their anxious colleague. Satchell was finally afforded the chance to run at the French defence, powering past three before slipping a pass inside to the outnumbered Tayla Christensen, Rolston's replacement.
When "TC" next saw daylight, courtesy a Cleverley pass, she stung the gloves of Chavas with a twenty-yarder, a feat matched by Puketapu from five yards further out seconds later.
Sadly for the Junior Ferns, that shot was the last in this flurry of attacking activity - the reigning European champions swiftly reasserted themselves on proceedings, and resumed putting the New Zealand goal under pressure.
Moore hooked a Delphine Cascarino cross to safety, after she'd got the better of Morton on the right. The fullback herself was called upon to clear an angled drive from Garbino, seconds after Olla's vital save had prevented the same player from capitalising on an error on New Zealand's right flank.
France continued to press, with Olla smothering a Moore-blocked Geyoro drive eighteen minutes from time after the midfielder had been released by Karchaoui. Two minutes later, Delphine Cascarino swept past the challenges of Stewart-Hobbs, Cleverley and Christensen before unleashing a twenty-yarder which fizzed a foot at most over Olla's crossbar - otherwise it was a 'Goal of the Tournament' contender!
Still France pressed, with their captain again getting the better of Morton before firing in a cross which saw the ball flying across the face of goal after Anton's mis-timed clearance attempt.
Garbino was next to spurn an opening, slicing wide after Karchaoui had once more motored down the left before working a one-two with Geyoro prior to setting up the striker eight minutes from time.
Four minutes later, one final chance for the Junior Ferns came to pass. Christensen sparked things off, with Cleverley - her best game of the tournament - bringing late substitute Hannah Blake into play.
She took on four opponents before linking with Puketapu, whose unerring twenty yard drive had 'bottom far corner' written all over it. Sadly for the Junior Ferns, Chavas hadn't read the script, and plunged to her left to keep a clean sheet.
It also ensured a 2-0 win for the European champions over their Oceania counterparts, a result which brought New Zealand's FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup ambitions to a premature end once more - a sad end, for mine, because having witnessed their potential, I considered this group of Junior Ferns to be well capable of better than they ultimately achieved in Papua New Guinea.
Winning their opening game, and putting themselves in a position where their destiny was in their hands throughout the course of group play, makes their failure to progress to the last eight all the more disappointing. The chance was there; it wasn't taken.
How to ensure we take that chance when it presents itself at future tournaments? There are many contributing factors to the overall solution, but uppermost among them must be the fine-tuning of existing practices, ideally by individual(s) who, by their own achievements, know what is required to succeed at the level to which we aspire our representative teams and coaches to reach.
Ultimately, we're talking incremental improvements that are required, i.e. 1% here, 2% there. Because the core elements of what is being done to develop our players and coaches at present you'll find happening in football the world over.
It's securing that additional element to give us that extra edge - something I term 'next level thinking' - which we need to strive for and secure, in order to put New Zealand well and truly on world football's map, rather than merely making up the numbers at FIFA's football finals as a result of our superiority in the Oceania region.
France: Chavas; Mansuy, Cissoko, E. Cascarino (booked, 48), Karchaoui; D. Cascarino (Couturier, 90), Gathrat, Geyoro, Leger (Fleury, 45); Mateo, Garbino (Gauvin, 87).
Junior Ferns: Olla; Stewart-Hobbs, Moore, Anton, Morton; Cleverley, Coombes, Jale (Rolston, 34 (Christensen, 51)); Satchell (Blake, 79), Puketapu, Pereira.
Referee: Silvia Reyes (Peru).