So, just how good are the Black Sticks women?
All should be revealed tomorrow morning (8.15am, NZ time) when they take on world No 2 Argentina and, in particular, the player that inspires them, midfielder Luciana Aymar.
With the scalps of Australia and South Africa already claimed at the Olympics, hopes are high that this team made up of good skills, fast legs and blonde ponytails can give the South American hotshots a shake. Argentina could be vulnerable too. They lost unexpectedly 1-0 to the United States yesterday in a result that surprised the New Zealanders and opened up the chance for them to top their group.
Two from two, the Black Sticks can afford to lose, mind you, but a heavy defeat would be a blow psychologically.
Coach Mark Hager set his team two preliminary goals before the two-week tournament at Riverbank Arena. He wanted “four or six points” after the opening two games. Check. And nine points after four games. His theory on the latter is that if they go into the final pool game against Germany with their destiny in their own hands they are in a virtual quarterfinal.
The Black Sticks have generally looked impressive in their opening two games. The positives have been the form of goalkeeper Bianca Russell and captain Kayla Sharland, the flying starts, three goals from penalty corners and solid defence.
The one area that will alarm Hager was the way his side tired in the second half against South Africa. For a side noted for its fitness, it was unexpected, although perhaps the emotion and exertion attached to the opening game against Australia took its toll.
In more general terms, they may lack an out-and-out goal-scoring striker, and a great unknown is how they adapt to the change of start time. The Black Sticks have turned their lives upside-down to prepare for morning games, but after 8.30am and 10.45 starts, they move to a late game (9.15pm) against Argentina.
They have never finished higher than sixth at an Olympics. They are going to need to play out of their skins to advance from the pool of death ahead of Argentina or Germany. If they wind up third in the pool they will play off for fifth and sixth with the third-placed team from Pool A.
Right now that is a scenario they will not want to think about.
In the latest series between the sides, Argentina came out on top in Auckland in March. The visitors won the opening test 4-3 but that was followed up by two low-scoring draws.
The Black Sticks would not thumb their nose at a draw tomorrow but Hager is a straight-shooting Australian who starts every game aiming to win.
“We'll definitely go for the win,” he said. “They are a quality side and their corners were very good against South Africa the other night and Aymar is such a good quality player.
“The last time we played them was in Argentina in front of 15,000 screaming Argentinians and we drew 2-2. We were leading 2-0 and blew it.
"Hopefully that experience has helped this group. We know they are going to be hard.”
ON A ROLL
v Australia, won 1-0
v South Africa, won 4-1
v Argentina – Tomorrow, 8.15am
v USA – Sunday, August 5, 6am
v Germany – Monday, August 6, 7.30pm
* All games in NZ time
- © Fairfax NZ News