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Late Winner Denies Football Ferns Draw With Japan
by Jeremy Ruane
A late winner from reigning Women's World Cup holders Japan denied New Zealand's Football Ferns a deserved draw at the Kincho Stadium in Osaka on May 8, the host nation edging this friendly international 2-1.

The result brought up New Zealand's 100th defeat in international women's football, but it will rank as one they scarcely merited after outplaying the world champions throughout the second half, having looked more than a little lethargic throughout the opening forty-five minutes.

Retaining possession appeared to be a problem for both teams in the initial stages, but it was Nadeshiko Japan who settled first, Rumi Utsugi feeding Chinatsu Kira in the sixth minute with a pass which allowed the debutant striker to burst into the penalty area and test the reflexes of Erin Nayler.

The Football Ferns responded straight away through Hannah Wilkinson, whose touch failed her on numerous occasions in this match. This was one time when the ball stuck to her boot, however, the striker's driving run at Japan's retreating rearguard ultimately coming to an end in the penalty area courtesy Utsugi's timely tackle.

But it was the reigning world champions who quickly regained the initiative, Nayler forced to make another sound save on the quarter hour to turn a Nahomi Kawasumi twenty yarder round the post.

Nayler's save earned Japan their first corner of the match, one which Aya Miyama delivered beyond the far post to the completely unmarked figure of Mizuho Sakaguchi.

The Football Ferns eventually managed to scramble to safety the threat posed by her unchallenged header into the goalmouth, but as chances go it was the best so far in this closely contested encounter.

There weren't many more for Japan in the next ten minutes or so, as Abby Erceg and company finally got to grips with the game - coming in cold to play an international is definitely not something the Football Ferns can afford to do too often; how they would have benefited from playing a scratch game prior to this match, as it would have allowed them to hit the ground running from the outset in Osaka.

Before they began to re-establish their combinations, however, Japan threatened twice more before the half-hour mark. Kawasumi fired past the post after being picked out by Miyama, while Sakaguchi, Megumi Takase and Miyama combined to present Kawasumi with another opportunity in the 29th minute.

On this occasion, she side-stepped Ria Percival's challenge before letting fly from the edge of the penalty area. Nayler was right behind the shot, and grabbed it gratefully.

Percival was a prominent figure in New Zealand's performance, and her return from injury, along with that of fellow well-performed wing-back Ali Riley, provided a real look of solidity and stability to a side which had greatly missed these vital members of their arsenal throughout the Cyprus Cup - their combined absence has been a significant factor in this year's adverse scorelines, make no mistake.

Their return to the fray meant New Zealand's set-piece expert was back on the job, and Percival's pinpoint delivery of a 34th minute corner to the near post was superbly flicked on by Sarah Gregorius towards Wilkinson, who met the ball flush with her forehead, only to send it sizzling narrowly past the upright - the closest either side had come to a goal at this point.

Japan's response to this let-off saw them take the lead six minutes before half-time via a classic counter-attacking goal. There appeared to be little threat as Miyama made her way over the half-way line, Kira and Yuri Kawamura having combined to dispossess Katie Hoyle in the centre circle.

All that changed when she unleashed a superb thirty-five yard pass right into the stride of Takase. The striker ghosted in behind Rebekah Stott to take the measured pass on her chest and leave herself one-on-one with the advancing figure of Nayler, who was beaten by a confident finish into the net behind her - a deserved goal for the reigning world champions.

And a setback the Football Ferns could ill afford. They wasted little time in seeking to restore parity, with another Percival free-kick this time picking out the head of Amber Hearn, whose header ricocheted off Azusa Iwashimizu for what would have been a corner, had the officials been on the right angles to see the ricochet - some of Polish referee Agnieszka Plaskocinska's calls were a tad difficult to fathom, it must be said.

In the shadows of the half-time whistle, Japan went close to doubling their lead, Miyama again central to Nadeshiko's creativity. She combined with Takase to play in Kawasumi on the left, and her shot, from the edge of the penalty area, was headed over her own crossbar by Erceg.

The Football Ferns began the second spell in nervous fashion, Nayler's poor clearance inviting pressure on her goal. Miyama's surprise at having the chance to let fly from twenty-five yards wasn't reflected in her shot, which whizzed narrowly past the right-hand post of New Zealand's relieved custodian.

After this scare, the visitors took the game to their rivals - this was much more like the Football Ferns and where they're at in their development cycle at present. You expect the likes of the USA, as they
did in the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup Final, to outplay Japan for lengthy periods. It's not something you expect of New Zealand, but when this team is at or close to full strength, it's what they're well capable of.

And so it was, Stott sending Wilkinson storming down the right five minutes into the second half to spark this spell of supremacy. Wilkinson's cross picked out Hearn, whose header was blocked for a corner.

Percival's delivery picked out Wilkinson, who this time directed her header over the bar. And after Stott's timely tackle had foiled Takase in the 57th minute, the Football Ferns' dominance resumed, Hearn sending Gregorius scurrying to the by-line.

The speedster checked back and found Stott in support, with Betsy Hassett the ultimate beneficiary of their industry. Sadly from the Football Ferns' perspective, her shot flew well wide.

Unlike the Football Ferns' next effort on goal, in the 62nd minute. It's over three years since Kirsty Yallop last scored for her country, but this strike was well worth the wait and then some!

Winning possession in the centre circle, she swiftly linked with Hoyle before setting off on a surging off-the-ball run from half-way. Meantime, the ball was making steady progress down the right, via the contributions of Hassett and Hearn, who sought out Gregorius with her cross.

Saori Ariyoshi beat her to it, however, and headed the ball out of the area, straight to Yallop, who took one touch to control the sphere before unleashing an unerring twenty yard bullet beyond the diving figure of giant - by Japanese standards - goalkeeper Erina Yamane and into the bottom far corner of the net. 1-1, and how!

The Football Ferns were great value for their equaliser, their second half display rich with dynamism and desire - they fancied this, make no mistake, and a stunning upset of the reigning world champions wasn't out of the question.

Five minutes after the equaliser, Percival and Yallop worked a short corner which allowed the fullback to deliver an angled cross to the far post, Hearn and Wilkinson her targets. Iwashimizu came to Japan's rescue again - the long-serving defender was rock-like in this encounter.

Alarm bells were ringing in the Football Ferns' camp fifteen minutes from time when Yallop, gathering a Riley pass inside her own half, was blind-sided and stripped of possession by substitute Yuika Sugasawa, one of six replacements Nadeshiko coach Norio Sasaki used in the match, in stark contrast to his opposite number - Tony Readings' lone change came late in the contest.

Nadeshiko's newcomer - she had only been on the pitch four minutes - fed Kawasumi, whose curling effort was punched out by Nayler. Miyama was first to react to the opening, but sliced her effort wide from twenty-five yards.

Five minutes later, the visitors were pressing for a winner, with Hearn's first time shot, on receipt of a super defence-splitting through ball from Percival, being smothered by Yamane at her near post.

Japan, too, were keen to head off to the Asian Women's Cup on the back of a victory on home soil, and four minutes from time pounced on a defensive lapse to snatch it, to the undisguised despair of their gallant opponents - a soft goal to concede, and one which ultimately came down to an error in judgement by Erceg.

The Chicago Red Stars' newest recruit had generally performed well throughout proceedings, but she allowed Sugasawa far too much room to run onto the ball on this occasion, the substitute ignoring her opponent's half-hearted challenge to head home Miyama's pinpoint corner, the ball flying into the net by the upright Yallop had been guarding just seconds earlier.

Japan's 2-1 lead came under instant threat from the Football Ferns, and their most prolific markswoman came agonisingly close to ekeing out a deserved equaliser a minute from time.

Stott's angled ball forward picked out Hearn on the edge of Japan's penalty area, where she controlled the ball neatly before swivelling to unleash a volley on the turn which flashed inches past the upright - it was desperately close.

As were the Football Ferns to earning what would have been a richly deserved draw against the reigning world champions, a team they've yet to defeat in seven attempts. They certainly didn't deserve to be beaten by them on this occasion, that's for sure.

But Nadeshiko Japan exploited the two occasions New Zealand's central defenders switched off in this match to the fullest - such are the small details and fine margins which the Football Ferns have to overcome in their quest to forge a path into the world ranking echelons in which Japan continue to be a great benchmark for the women's game generally.

Nadeshiko Japan:     Yamane; Ariyoshi, Iwashimizu, Kawamuri, Utsugi (Norimatsu, 57); Nakajima (Sawa, 57), Sakaguchi (Kiryu, 90), Miyawa, Kawasumi (Naomoto, 86); Kira (Sugasawa, 71), Takase (Maruyama, 71)
Football Ferns:     Nayler; Percival, Stott, Erceg, Riley; Hassett, Hoyle, Hearn, Yallop; Wilkinson (Collins, 88), Gregorius
Referee:          Agnieszka Plaskocinska (Poland)

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