The opening match was played in extreme heat as temperatures in London rocketed to the mid-thirties and the temperature on the pitch was several degrees higher.
New Zealand, who are currently fourth in the FIH Hero World Rankings have played Japan (WR:11) recently in the Pioneer Energy Tri-Nations Women’s International, beating the Cherry Blossoms twice, but this is a World Cup and nothing is a certainty.
While New Zealand had secured three points after a tough game with Belgium, Japan had been on the wrong side of a 3-2 loss to Australia. In that game, Japan had started slowly and turned a potentially clear-cut loss into a much closer affair with two quick goals in the final minutes of the game.
So the two questions ahead of the game was whether New Zealand had recovered from their exertions and whether Japan would pick up the momentum they had developed over the course of their opening match.
The first half was an open affair, with New Zealand playing their usual expansive and fast-running style of play and Japan looking for innovative passes that got their strikers in behind the Black Stick’s defence.
It was Japan who created the majority of chances in the first half. The first of these came when Yu Asai found Motomi Kawamura in front of goal and unmarked. The striker just deflected the ball wide of Sally Rutherford in the New Zealand goal. Three penalty corners for the Cherry Blossoms also failed to provide a breakthrough but it was clear that Japan were paying no heed to the large disparity in world rankings.
As temperatures rose, so the players’ fatigue levels began to show. Passes from both teams were going astray and on several occasions a good run ended in no outcome purely because the player ran out of energy.
After the break, it was Japan who demonstrated they were adapting to the hot conditions the best. A well-disciplined high press put pressure on the Black Sticks and they were eventually rewarded with a fourth penalty corner. Oikwawa Shihori was on hand to slam the ball past Rutherford.
New Zealand came back hard seeking an equaliser but Japan were able to step up and breakdown the play. A quick break left Minami Shimizu with a one-on-one with the ‘keeper and the nifty midfielder was able to dance around the sliding tackle and slot home to double the Cherry Blossom’s lead.
However, New Zealand are not a team to give up and with nine minutes left, New Zealand won a penalty stroke after a foul tackle prevented a certain goal. Anita McLaren made no mistake as she struck the ball into the bottom right-hand corner, and the 2017 Gold Coast gold medallists were back in the game. Speaking after the game McLaren Said “We didn’t play to our game plan, we were a bit slow and sluggish. We changed our game plan and structure for the final period and started to come back in to the game. Our attentions now turn to Australia in a few days time”.
With five minutes left Japan were reduced to 10 players and a penalty corner was awarded to New Zealand. The large contingent of Black Sticks fans held their breath but the shot flew harmlessly wide.
“We learnt a lot from our previous game against Australia [Japan lost 3-2],” said Japan’s Yui Ishibashi, as she reflected back on her team’s performance. “We planned to operate a high press and then try to work around the New Zealand defence.”
Images: Perspective Photos