New Zealand 1
The Football Ferns' tough challenge at the Tokyo has got exponentially more difficult, after a 2-1 loss to Australia.
Placed in a group with the world champion United States team and European powerhouses Sweden, the Ferns had to get some kind of result against their transtasman rivals, to have any hope of progressing into the knockout stages.
But they never looked likely, after giving up two first-half goals, though Ferns substitute Gabi Rennie grabbed a consolation goal in the 91st minute.
The scoreline could have been more emphatic, but for several impressive saves from Erin Nayler.
The New Zealand keeper, coming off a difficult season with Reading where she only had one game, had a busy night, though will rue a poor clearance which opened the door for the Matildas first goal.
The Ferns battled away, but only managed three shots on target and didn't force their first corner until the 85th minute.
But Rennie's goal – on her debut – was a special memory – as she glanced a header into the far corner.
The Ferns struggled to gain a foothold in the first half, but improved after halftime, in a more assertive display and looked significantly better when they adjusted to a back four.
Abby Erceg was superb in a beaten side, often well positioned and keeping Chelsea striker Sam Kerr relatively quiet. But few others could match her standards; to surprise at a pinnacle event the majority of your team need to have the game of their lives, but too many Ferns were a shade below their best.
There were some mitigating factors; the Ferns were playing their first competitive game in 500 days, after being unable to assemble since the Algarve Cup in March 2020 - an unprecedented build-up for any New Zealand team. Their opponents had managed five games since April.
The Ferns had some encouraging early moments of possession, in a nervy start from both sides.
However, once Australia settled into their rhythm, they began to dominate. Ferns coach Tom Sermanni had opted for a 3-4-3 formation, but its success depended on wing backs CJ Bott and Ali Riley being able to get forward, with the defensively oriented Katie Bowen and Ria Percival in the middle of the park.
But Bott and Riley were mostly pinned back, making it difficult for the New Zealand side to keep the ball, which only increased the pressure.
Nayler did well to prevent an own goal in the 16th minute, after an Australian cross cannoned off Erceg, but four minutes later the Matildas took a deserved lead, as Tameka Yallop drove a powerful near post finish past Nayler, after being set up by Kerr.
But the Ferns had invited pressure, after a couple of poor passes inside their own territory, with both Nayler and Meikayla Moore being ambitious in possession and they were swiftly punished.
New Zealand responded well to going behind – with some incursions down the right flank – but Australia looked much more likely. They went close after 30 minutes – with a cross somehow eluding two attackers, before extending their lead through a pinpoint driven corner, with Kerr eluding Moore at the near post to power home.
The Australians were tormenting New Zealand with their precise diagonal balls, leaving the back three under constant duress.
The Ferns improved after the break, though the Matildas continued to dominate, only stopped by some timely interventions by Nayler. When rare opportunities did come, they lacked composure in the final third, perhaps their rustiness affecting decision making.
A strong chance came when Hannah Wilkinson dispossessed the Australian goalkeeper, but the striker couldn't find her lone teammate in the area, with the goal unguarded, while Katie Bowen went close from a free kick which drifted just wide of the far post.
But Wilkinson never stopped working, and her far-post cross was cushioned back into the path of Rennie, who finished superbly in injury time.
The Ferns face the United States on Saturday (11.30pm), with the Americans reeling from a shock 3-0 defeat to Sweden earlier on Wednesday night.