Sometimes a smile can tell the whole story. As the final whistle blew, and New Zealand finally had a win at a major competition, the smiles told the story. After 14 straight games without a victory over more than two decades, all the hard work behind the scenes had finally paid off. Granted, it was a 3-1 victory over Cameroon that they rightfully expected to have, but as much as we – and I’m as guilty as anyone – want to talk about off-the-ball and off-the-field incidents, sometimes something as simple as a smile is all you need to see, no matter what happens to New Zealand against the United States on Friday.
The “group of life” took center stage today, but anyone who thought Japan was a little bit of a soft No. 4 in the world may think differently after they handled New Zealand much easier than the final 2-1 tally would indicate.
Meanwhile, England looked like they were well on their way to doing the same until a 40-yard dancing missile out of nowhere from Mexico’s Monica Ocampo shook them so much they never really recovered. You’d still consider them favorites to go through, but finishing second in Group B will likely get you a date with Germany in the quarterfinals, and then likely get you on the next plane home.
So what happened? I’ll try to tell you in the 10 things we learned in Day 2 of Germany 2011.
1) The weather (and fitness) will be a factor for some
New Zealand had a pretty good gameplan to pressure Japan into mistakes and try to take advantage of their lack of size at the other end. Through most of the first half, despite conceding, it worked pretty well, they went into halftime 1-1.
But on a very warm day, New Zealand just couldn’t keep it up. Betsy Hassett and Katie Hoyle slowed down significantly in the center of midfield, players started cramping up, pressure was non-existent, and tackles were lazy, including the one Rebecca Smith put on Mana Iwabuchi, which eventually led to the winning goal. New Zealand never did get a shot on goal in the second half, and obviously never threatened.
You could argue the same for England, they seemed to run out of gas in the final 30 minutes, not as creative, not as fluid, and it nearly allowed the Mexicans to steal the game. Add the fact that teams will be playing a lot of games in a short period of time, too.
2) You can add Mana Iwabuchi to the list of youngsters to keep an eye on
Some of it is what you just read in No. 1, New Zealand was very tired in the second half, but if Japan was gaining momentum already, Iwabuchi put them over the edge, running at the Kiwis at will. She came on relatively early for Shinobi Ohno (55th minute), so you wonder if Norio Sasaki thinks about starting her, but probably not for now.
3) You can talk about a lot of things, but sometimes quality just shines through
Yes, it came from a New Zealand giveaway, but if you get a chance, look at the pass from Ohno that set up the first Japanese goal in the 6th minute. Ridiculous. And it wasn’t an easy finish for Yuki Nagasato, either. Brilliant goal, men, women, or martian. And Aya Miyama’s winning free kick goal was also pure class. Class that New Zealand just doesn’t have, unfortunately.
4) It’s going to be tough to outprepare Japan
Did you notice that Japan seemed to be putting all of their corner kicks toward the same long spot, even though they had a significant height disadvantage? It wasn’t an accident, New Zealand had obviously been scouted zonal marking and left the spot 12 yards high on the far side open. Japan hit that spot, put it back into the mixer and nearly got a couple of goals.
To a lesser extent, Japan also tried to take advantage of New Zealand “squeezing” them to one side of the field, preventing them from switching, but they couldn’t exploit it too often (they did once when Mizuho Sakaguchi should have scored in the 18th minute, but hit the post).
5) Japan may struggle with Mexico, too, though
New Zealand’s goal came because Japan was caught pretty high up the field and right back Yukari Kinga couldn’t get anywhere near Amber Hearn, while goalkeeper Ayuma Kihari was a little lost, resulting in a pretty easy finish. Mexico won’t have the height, but they will have the counterattacking ability to possibly take advantage, although they probably won’t wilt like England, either. OK, maybe they won’t struggle.
6) Speaking of goalkeepers, Mexico’s Cici Santiago was the best of the four today
She really doesn’t look all that intimidating, but she makes the saves she’s supposed to make, and doesn’t do anything stupid. There’s something to be said for simplicity. She didn’t get scored on from 40 yards out like her counterpart Karen Bardsley, for sure.
7) Hope Powell’s substitution pattern left plenty to be desired
How Eni Aluko goes 90 minutes in that game is beyond me. First, she was struggling phyiscally from about the 60 minute-mark onward, and I thought she might come off with an injury. Second, she was ineffective, missing a couple of chances and giving the ball away on a few other occasions after a decent start.
Add to that the weather, and the fact that Powell didn’t use her second sub until the 83rd minute and never did use her third with her team in dire need of energy from somewhere. Surely, there was someone on that bench who could have done something. Ellen White had an impact in her 18 minutes of work, but probably should have been called on earlier.
8) The women’s game is officiated a little differently
In the 57th minute, Jill Scott was cleaned out with a late, studs pretty far up challenge by Mexico’s Stephany Mayor. The referee (Silvia Reyes of Peru) never did give a card to Mayor, and Kate Markgraf thought it was a “fair challenge”. If that were MLS, people would be screaming for a suspension.
9) Mexico’s Leonardo Cuellar doesn’t share the “defending through attacking” philosophy of CONCACAF rival Carolina Morace, but it worked nonetheless
The 4-1-4-1 Mexico put out today started out by giving England a ton of space, but Maribel Dominguez ran until she couldn’t run anymore, Mexico had enough players behind the ball, and was able to steal a goal at just the right time, because if they had to come out and play down 1-0, they might have been picked apart.
In the second half, Cuellar and Mexico took advantage of a tiring England and pushed higher up the field, which is why they not only had more of the game, but prevented England from coming at them in waves as well. Good tactical game from Cuellar, he certainly won that battle.
10) The United States has to feel a little better about themselves
Well, except for the England part, I guess. But they did handle Japan pretty well in friendlies and despite a 1-0 scoreline, completely played Mexico off the field. Japan was very good today and Mexico was obviously no slouch, either, meaning the U.S. should be pretty confident heading into a game against North Korea, although I don’t know how confident you can ever be about playing North Korea.
I wish Alina Garciamendez was American
Wait, she is? Someone alert US Soccer, quick.