It’s hard to know whether to expect a goal-fest or a tight encounter in tomorrow’s National Women’s League grand final. The Canterbury United Pride and Northern Lights are the highest scoring teams in the competition but also boast the most miserly defensive records, each conceding only eight goals.
If last year’s final is anything to go by, we could be in for an entertaining afternoon as the same sides served up a five-goal thriller on that occasion, Canterbury eventually triumphing 3-2 in extra-time. But the most recent meeting between the pair was a scoreless stalemate so what will unfold this time at English Park in Christchurch is anybody’s guess.
Motivation certainly won’t be a problem for Northern as they look to exact revenge for that painful outcome a year ago.
“The vast majority of our group came back again this season so it was still fresh in their memories,” coach Shane Verma says.
“But a lot of the girls had individual successes throughout the club season or had made national age-group teams so we embraced that in the first couple of sessions we had and focused on the progress the players had made since the grand final.”
That approach has since paid off as Northern have conceded just three more goals after opening the campaign with a hectic 5-5 draw at Southern United. They were the only side to go through the regular season unbeaten and – crucially from a confidence point of view – have already humbled the Pride on their own patch, earning a 3-1 win at English Park in mid-October.
“I think there were some nerves that day, Northern have fantastic players throughout their squad so there was a little bit of fear in there,” Canterbury coach Alana Gunn says.
“The girls did learn a lot from it and the next time we played them we battled out a nil-all draw. That first game against Northern has been our only big mishap and we’ve been really consistent since then, keeping clean sheets and making sure we’re scoring enough goals to win games.”
Many of those have been notched by Britney-Lee Nicholson – who has found the net nine times – while Northern’s scoring has been shared amongst the likes of Kelli Brown, Ava Pritchard and Chloe Knott.
Impressively, Canterbury have claimed the minor premiership without the presence of Football Ferns playmaker Annalie Longo, who featured in just one match before joining Melbourne Victory in the Australian W-League.
“I was nervous about losing her because she offers so much, on and off the pitch,” Gunn admits.
“But it opened the door for so many other people to fill those roles. Instead of just having one leader, we now have six or seven throughout the squad.”
Northern are also blessed with a wealth of experience, particularly at the defensive end of the park where goalkeeper Lily Alfeld and Aneka Mittendorff join co-captains Claudia Bunge and Saskia Vosper in forming a formidable unit.
Canterbury’s rear-guard is just as reliable though with Una Foyle lining up behind skipper Rebecca Lake, Chloe Jones, Annabel Gilchrist, Kate Taylor and Marisa van der Meer.
“Like us, Canterbury are quite strong defensively so it’s going to be really important to take our chances and allow the players to express themselves,” Verma says.
“In front of goal we have to be very, very clinical.”
National Women’s League Grand Final
Canterbury United Pride vs Northern Lights
Sunday 15 December, 2pm
English Park, Christchurch
Live on Sky Sport
Referee: Anna-Marie Keighley
Assistant referees: Heloise Welch, Allys Clipsham
Fourth official: Nadia Browning
Canterbury United Pride (from): 1. Una Foyle (GK), 2. Marisa van der Meer, 3. Rebecca Lake (c), 4. Lara Wall, 5. Annabel Gilchrist, 6. Chloe Jones, 7. Gabi Rennie, 8. Tahlia Herman-Watt, 10. Alyssa Whinham, 11. Macey Fraser, 12. Lauren Dabner, 13. Whitney Hepburn, 15. Britney-Lee Nicholson, 20. Kate Taylor, 21. Nicola Dominikovich, 23. Bel van Noorden
Coach: Alana Gunn
Northern Lights (from): 1. Lily Alfeld (GK), 2. Chloe Bellamy, 4. Aneka Mittendorff, 5. Saskia Vosper (c), 6. Claudia Bunge, 7. Chloe Knott, 8. Arabella Maynard, 9. Maggie Jenkins, 10. Kelli Brown, 11. Talisha Green, 12. Liz Savage, 14. Lily Jervis, 15. Nicole Cooper, 16. Ava Pritchard, 17. Mackenzie Barry, 18. Emily Couchman (GK)
Coach: Shane Verma