England has boosted its chances of moving on to the knockout stage with a scrappy 2-1 win over New Zealand on Friday, leaving the Kiwis heartbroken.
Sarah Gregorius gave New Zealand the surprising lead in the 18th minute when she combined with fellow forward Amber Hearn to pick apart the English back line. Hearn slipped in behind English captain and center back Faye White and served a left footed ball into the center of the box, where Gregorius maneuvered herself between Casey Stoney and Rachel Unitt for the finish from six yards out.
New Zealand managed to exploit a slow, ball-watching English defense throughout the night and was unlucky not to add to its lead on several first half occasions. The Football Ferns were confident in possession, particularly in the back, the team’s strongest area.
Ali Riley, Rebecca Smith, Abby Erceg and Anna Green did well to start the attack for the All Whites, who surprisingly found success on the ground against England.
The Three Lions struggled mightily in the midfield and Kelly Smith, the team’s playmaker, battled through multiple injuries in the game and could not find a rhythm. Even in an average performance by her standards, Smith managed to produce a couple of half chances in the match. But her teammates picked up the scoring load for her.
Alex Scott delivered an inch-perfect first time cross in the 63rd minute that found the head of Jill Scott. She headed it into the far upper corner of the net and the Scott-to-Scott connection paid off for England, which pulled level against the run of play.
New Zealand still pressed on and played a more confident than usual style, but England broke through for the winner in the 81st minute when Jess Clarke hammered the ball into the top of the net. Unitt served a ball into the box and New Zealand goalkeeper Jenny Bindon tried to punch it but could not get a clean take on the ball. It fell to Jill Scott and she laid it off to Clarke for the one-time finish from eight yards out.
The Football Ferns then turned to a very direct style of play for the final minutes of the match but could not breakthrough. It was heartbreak for New Zealand, which still has not collected a single point from eight all-time Women’s World Cup matches.
With the loss, New Zealand is eliminated from the Women’s World Cup but will play for pride against Mexico on Tuesday. That should be the team’s best chances to collect its first-ever points from a Women’s World Cup game. It is disappointing, but this is a young team that has gained valuable experience for 2015.
Meanwhile, there should be some concern in England’s camp following two underwhelming performances against Mexico (1-1 draw) and New Zealand, the two weakest teams in the group. Japan just handed Mexico a 4-0 beatdown and if England shows up the way it has in its first two games, it could get embarrassed on Tuesday.
This team has hopes of making its deepest run yet (getting past the quarterfinal stage), but it is yet to show the necessary quality for that. The Three Lions have enough game-changers in the attack to stay in any match, but the back line is a point of concern. Captain Faye White is typically an anchor back there, but the collective mobility of the defense is an issue. England should be through to the next stage, but if the team expects to make a run, it will need to get on the same page.
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