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Day 1: Under way Down Under
Australia and New Zealand show how to be good hosts
So the Women’s World Cup is finally underway and the first two matches did not disappoint, particularly if you were from the host nations. There was a surprise win for New Zealand and a less surprising win for Australia, with both matches having their own moments of intrigue.
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New Zealand 1 - Norway 0
Let’s start with New Zealand who finally, on their sixteenth attempt, won a World Cup match in front of a record domestic attendance for a women’s football match. At points in the build up to this World Cup, New Zealand have felt like hosts with an asterisk attached. They hold none of the dark horse potential that Australia do, are lacking in star names and probably had getting a win as their main aim heading into the tournament.
It seems unlikely that they would have expected it to come here against Norway. On paper, they are a team who theoretically you should expect to do very well in international tournaments. They don’t have great depth throughout the squad but the front three alone of Ada Hegerberg, Caroline Graham Hansen and Guro Reiten should be able to cover a lot of cracks. All three have regularly hauled their club sides through some sub-par footballing moments.
Except here, manager Hege Riise did not play those players as her front three. Instead Julie Blakstad was used in Reiten’s familiar left wing position with Reiten instead shifted into a midfield with Frida Maanum and Ingrid Engen. Reiten is not bad necessarily in central areas - Emma Hayes deployed her as a supporting 10 for Sam Kerr at points during Chelsea’s UWCL run this season and it worked as part of an incredibly defensive set up. But the Guro Reiten exceptionalism we have seen in the last season has been predominantly off the left and predominantly playing with a striker who would thrive off her crosses, exactly like Ada Hegerberg would.
Anyone familiar with Riise’s work as England and Team GB manager would perhaps have been sceptical about her ability to get the most out of a Norway team that seems exactly suited for the opposite of what Riise is good at. They have a limited defence and Ingrid Engen is yet to prove she can competently play as a single pivot. The logical approach would be to throw caution to the wind and play all-out attack. But instead, Norway continue to look like a team who have never played together before
This isn’t to take away anything from New Zealand who refused to sit back in this match and could have won by two if Ria Percival had not put her penalty onto the bar. It was a deserved debut win for the Football Ferns but a worrying loss for Norway who now only have a 50% chance of getting out the group, according to Opta.
Australia 1 - Republic of Ireland 0
This match was rocked by the news which came out during the opening fixture that Sam Kerr would not be available for the first two matches of the tournament, throwing into question her participation in the whole World Cup. For Australia, and for Kerr, it was a massive blow. Kerr is not only their captain but someone who justifiably they structure their play around. Part of what makes her such a fantastic player is how good she is at bringing out the best in those around her. Caitlin Foord has had an amazing individual season but being in a front two with Kerr has further elevated her. Was it possible for Australia to replicate what she offered?
Well the answer was probably always going to be no - particularly at such short notice - but equally Ireland were always going to set up in a deep block and try to defend.
The game was physical, disjointed and as a result, often rather dull. Some of Ireland’s best chances came from Katie McCabe corners, with her attempts to swing the ball over Mackenzie Arnold’s head coming tantalisingly close at points. Ireland will feel pleased they came away from this one still fighting for an equaliser at the very end. For Australia, they will hope they can settle into a pattern without Kerr. They are far from being a one woman team but life without her is undeniably more difficult.