Football Ferns solid but room for improvement

TONY SMITH IN CARDIFF
Last updated 06:21 26/07/2012
Football Ferns
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Sarah Gregorious in action in the Football Ferns opening match of the Olympics.

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OPINION: The Football Ferns might be the most improved team on the New Zealand women's sports scene but they still have some way to go before becoming a football force.

Their chances of advancing in the Olympic Games tournament depend on them swiftly summoning more composure, creativity and speed, on and off the ball.

Tony Readings' team went gangbusters for the first 12 minutes in today's 1-0 defeat to host nation Great Britain at Cardiff's splendid central city citadel, Millennium Stadium.

Arsenal's Stephanie Houghton set the game alight with a fabulous freekick, bending the ball, Brazilian-like, around New Zealand's defensive wall.

The goal was almost as heartbreaking to the Kiwis in the crowd as the last time a New Zealand team lost here at a major global sporting event. 

But we won't spoil your breakfast by regurgitating the 2007 Rugby World Cup defeat to France.

What a sublime setting for the Olympic curtain-raiser.

The Millennium Stadium's roof, shut firmly for the All Blacks' November northern hemisphere tour visits, was rolled back to reveal the blue Welsh with blue skies visible through the majestic Millennium Stadium's open roof.

It wasn't the high-scoring spectacle Seb and Sepp might have craved to kick off the Olympics. 

London 2012 organising committee Seb Coe and Fifa president Sepp Blatter were both in the house.

Both teams could have used some of former Olympic middle-distance gold medallist Coe's toe to add some urgency to their attacks.

But the Kiwis can't carp despite Sarah Gregorius missing a glorious equalising chance. This game went to form. 

Great Britain (or England) are ranked ninth in the world and the Football Ferns 23rd.

Their recent series victory over China and strong showing against Australia had raised expectations to hitherto unheard of levels.

But as Great Britain's nerves eased - after Kelly Smith banged the ball directly into touch after the kick-off - they asssumed the ascendancy.

The New Zealanders were too often too slow in movement and thought. 

When they won back the ball or profited from their opponents' profligacy they promptly surrendered it back.

Their midfield is like their All Whites men's equivalent: full of hard-working players with big engines but lacking the creative spark to play the killer pass and put their strikers into the gap.

Katie Hoyle is the female version of ex-All Whites and Wellington Phoenix energiser Tim Brown. 

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Gregorius scarcely got the ball she requires to thrive and Hayley Moorwood, the Ferns' most experiencd players with 82 caps, didn't exert the influence expected against players she pits her skills against on duty for Chelsea in the English premier women's league.

Amber Hearn had a shot over the turn which produced a smart save from keeper Karen Bardsley.

But she and Hannah Wilkinson got scant change from British captain Casey Stoney and her fellow defenders.

There may be a case for starting teenager Rosie White against Brazil on Sunday.

New Zealand look at their best when fullbacks Ria Percival and Ali Riley overlap down their flanks.

They did that to telling effect in the first quarter but then Britain put the shutters up.

British fullback Alex Scott advanced kept Riley, rated by her ex-United States club coach as the world's left back, pinned down in her defensive quarter.

Riley certainly didn't shirk her duties in that department. 

She put her body on the line twice in the second spell to block full-blooded efforts at pont-blank range.

But Riley was the New Zealander who looks most composed in possession.

She has the skills and the savvy to put her foot on the ball and change the flow. 

Perhaps she's the solution to the creativity conundrum in the Kiwi midfield. 

But international quality left backs do not grow on trees.

The Kiwis' central defence was solid enough with captain Rebecca Smith directing operations and Abby Erceg exhibiting great athleticism.

Goalkeeper Jenny Bindon has some work to do on her spatial awareness with the ball in the air.  She made a couple of good blocks on the deck but didn't look anywhere near as confident under aerial bombardment.

Bindon did, however, provide one of the game's light moments - kissing the outside of her left-hand post which saved the day in the first half. 

She should also have saved a smooch for the Millenium Stadium groundsman for the extra coat of paint.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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