Olympics Preview: New Zealand

Kris Goman casts her eye over the Football Ferns (pictured above via Football Ferns Instagram), who go into the Tokyo Games on the back of an exceptionally challenging last sixteen months.

Squad news

The Football Ferns have arguably faced more challenges than any other Olympic football team in their preparations for this tournament. New Zealand’s strict pandemic regulations combined with Australia’s has prevented this team getting together to train or play since March 2020.

To make matters worse, the NWSL did not release key US-Based players Ali Riley from Orlando Pride or Abby Erceg from North Carolina Courage until the international window which saw them both play in the NWSL last weekend. American, Canadian and Brazilian players had all been released up to two weeks earlier. Nordic based players have also only recently arrived as they are also in season.

Despite only 15 players being able to train together since late June with the rest joining in the last week or so, New Zealand lost fairly respectably 3-0 to Great Britain in a friendly last week.

Regular senior team members Rebekah Stott and Rosie White are both not available due to illness and their experience will be sorely missed.

This opens the team to a few youngsters to earn their first caps. Gabbie Rennie, Michaela Robertson and Marissa van der Meer will all be looking to make their debut for the Football Ferns. Claudia Bunge, Emma Rolston, Elizabeth Anton, Victoria Esson and Anna Leat have five or less caps and will be looking to solidify their positions on the team as they build to the Women’s World Cup in 2023 that will be jointly hosted by New Zealand and Australia.

To complement the youth, there is plenty of experience with Ali Riley, Abby Erceg, Betsy Hassett, Annalie Longo and Ria Percival all having well in excess of 100 caps. Hannah Wilkinson should get her 100th cap during the tournament.

Full squad is as follows:

Keepers: Erin Naylor, Anna Leat, Victoria Esson

Defenders: CJ Bott, Meikayla Moore, Claudia Bunge, Ali Riley (Captain), Abby Erceg, Anna Green, Elizabeth Anton, Marissa van der Meer

Midfielders: Katie Bowen, Daisy Cleverley, Olivia Chance, Betsy Hassett, Annalie Longo, Ria Percival, Emma Rolston.

Forwards: Paige Satchell, Hannah Wilkinson, Gabi Rennie, Michaela Robertson

Coach

Above: New Zealand manager Tom Sermanni (centre) with two of his Football Ferns Claudia Bunge (left) and Annalie Longo (right) after their W-League Grand Final success in April. Photo: Football Ferns Instagram

Tom Sermanni is the Football Ferns manager and is one of the most experienced coaches in the women’s game. The 67 year old hails from Glasgow, Scotland and the bulk of his playing career as a midfielder was spent with Albion Rovers and Torquay United. In 1983 he moved to Australia and played for Canberra City. He made the move to manager with Canberra Croatia simultaneously coaching Australian Schoolboys.

Stints at the Australian Institute of Sport, Westfields Sports High School and Sydney Olympic preceded his first national team role with the Matildas from 1994-97. Time in Japan, USA and back to Westfields Sports High School kept him busy before, once again, managing the Matildas from 2005 to 2012. This is the time many of the current Matildas kicked off their international careers.

Post the Australian position, he led the USA, then Canada, before landing the job as the first coach of Orlando Pride before taking the role with the Football Ferns in late 2018. He will finish with New Zealand once the Olympics are over.

To say that Sermanni understands Australian football is an understatement. Very few people know the Matildas better. He spent the last W-League at every match the Kiwis played in and got a good look at the current talent pool in Australia as well as keeping a close eye on his Aussie based charges during the worst of the pandemic. His in-depth knowledge of the Matildas has the potential to cause an upset in their first match of the Olympics. Lack of time with the international-based players is of more concern and no camps have been run since the Pandemic started.

Olympics History

This will be the Football Ferns’ fourth consecutive Olympics. Ria Percival, Abby Erceg, Anna Green and Ali Riley will have attended all four Olympics which is impressive in anyone’s books.

At Beijing, they did not leave the group stage, recording one draw and two losses. London saw them reach the quarter finals in their best result to date with one win, beating Cameroon and three losses bowing out to the United States, the eventual winner. Rio saw them stall at the group stage again with a win and two losses.

Qualifying

NZ qualified for the Olympics through the 2018 Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) Nations Cup which was held in New Caledonia for eight Pacific Ocean nations. New Zealand won that tournament convincingly with Fiji runners up.

Strengths

New Zealand is very strong defensively and through the midfield. They have plenty of experience in these areas and are solid here. It is possible they could just sit back and stop their opponents from scoring and it could be an effective tactic.

Development areas

Their key weakness is in attack but mostly due to experience. Wilkinson is by far and away their most experienced forward. Two of their four forwards are yet to earn a cap. They could well make up for inexperience at the international level with enthusiasm though.

Key Players

Ali Riley and Abby Erceg will be controlling things from the back and are integral to the tight defence. Meikayla Moore was part of the Liverpool second division team that beat Manchester United in the Continental Cup and is not short of talent or match fitness.

Ria Percival is plying her trade at Tottenham Hotspur and Annalie Longo is coming off a premiership winning W-League Season with Melbourne Victory although may lack some match fitness as that season finished a while ago.

Above: Paige Satchell (right) had a stellar season with Canberra United in the W-League this year. Photo: Kris Goman.

One to watch

There are two players to keep an eye on during this tournament. Paige Satchell had a fantastic run with Canberra United in the W-League this season. Every time she took the pitch she caused havoc with the defence. She’s very fast, very physical and technically gifted. If she’s firing and works well with Wilkinson, there could be a few goals.

The other player is Emma Rolston. She only has 5 caps but has scored 6 goals for the senior team in those appearances and 32 goals for the under 20 team with only 8 caps. As a midfielder, this is rather extraordinary. She hasn’t played much lately due to injury but if she’s back in top form, she’s a big threat.

Prediction

New Zealand is in the so-called group of death and given their lack of match and training time, it’s hard to see them winning a game under the circumstances. They won’t be a walkover but they haven’t beaten Australia since 1994 and both Sweden and the USA are in top form and looking to medal. Stranger things have happened but it’s difficult to see how they would in this tournament. New Zealand should be using this experience to blood some of their younger players and build to the World Cup.

Group Fixtures inc KO Times (Aus/UK)

21st July 2021 New Zealand V Australia – Tokyo Stadium, 9.30pm AUS / 12.30pm UK / 11.30pm NZ

24th July 2021 New Zealand v USA – Saitama Stadium, 9.30pm AUS / 12.30pm UK / 11.30pm NZ

27th July 2021 New Zealand V Sweden – Miyagi Stadium, 6pm AUS / 9amUK / 8pm NZ

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