Ali Riley’s World Cup journey came to an end this evening after suffering a 2-1 defeat to Cameroon and a third consecutive loss in the group stages of the tournament.
Cameroon's physicality appeared to be the difference between the two sides, and New Zealand’s defence were unable to match up to that. The African forward Ajara Nchout netted two clinical goals, one of which was scored deep in injury time. Although Cameroon conceded an own goal to bring New Zealand back into the game, the Ferns' missed chances were costly for them tonight.
The Kiwis had previously come up against Cameroon at the 2012 London Olympics where they triumphed 3-1 to secure a spot in the next stage, and the no.7 captained the Football Ferns to that victory.
New Zealand’s opening group game against the European champions Netherlands was promising; however, an added-time goal resulted in a 1-0 loss. In their second game against Canada, they put on a disciplined display, but the North Americans confidently won 2-0. Despite losses in their previous two outings, a win could have seen the Football Ferns still qualify for the knockout stages and initially it was expected as they came up against a side who are ranked 46th in the world.
Chelsea’s defender Ali Riley led out the Football Ferns in Montpellier’s Stade de la Mosson in front of an attendance of over 8,000 lively spectators. Her side set up with a 5-3-2 formation, with Riley as the left wing-back, where she had much joy in whipping crosses into her team-mates, particularly after the interval.
The match started intensely with both nations having a decent amount of possession. Cameroon had first sight on goal when Nchout latched onto a through ball, but Riley made sure she made up the groundwork to block the striker's effort.
Like their previous group stage matches, the Kiwis’ opposition grew into the game and they were left to absorb the continuous pressure from their attacking three.
New Zealand’s best chances of the first half came five minutes before the break in quick succession. Riley swung in a ball from the left flank which landed nicely for West Ham’s Ria Percival who unleashed a long-range shot on target, while Anna Green tried her luck from a free-kick which sailed past Annette Ngo Ndom in the Africans goal.
The Cameroonians strength and aggressive type of play began to be too much to handle for the New Zealanders and an opening came shortly after the hour mark. Nchout, who had been a menace all game, received the ball from her to back goal, turned cleverly away from Rebekah Stott and placed her left-footed shot into the bottom far corner.
However, the Football Ferns almost responded instantly when Riley fizzed an excellent ball into Sarah Gregorius who frustratingly headed the wrong side of the post. It was a frantic end to the game with both teams gunning for a goal. The Kiwis levelled the scoring with 10 minutes left to play and Chelsea’s no.7 was part of the build-up play. She switched the ball from the left channel to Katie Bowen on the right, who whizzed a powerful ball into the box. And Cameroons’ defender, Aurelle Awona, attempted to clear the cross but the ball bounced off her shin and looped over Ngo Ndom’s head to give the Football Ferns restored hope.
New Zealand gave their all and threw numbers forward in the search for the winning goal, yet that left them exposed at the back, and the Africans took full advantage of this. A five-on-two attack resulted in Nchout earning a brace and Cameroon bagging the winning goal to reach the last 16 in extraordinary circumstances. The no.3’s goal was a work of art – she twisted and turned beyond Percival twice in the box and calmly slotted the ball into the far corner beyond Erin Nayler, who has been outstanding all tournament for the Ferns in goal.
It was yet another frustrating game for Riley and New Zealand, and despite maintaining more possession than their opposition, they lacked the clinical touch in the final third when it mattered the most. It will be hard to take for the Ferns who remain without a World Cup win at the 15th attempt, however, their next focus and tournament to look forward to will be the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.