Asia · Oceania · World Cup 2010

One step away for New Zealand

At the start of the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, I had a small wish which I felt would probably go ungranted. I wanted my country of birth (Argentina) and my country of residence (New Zealand) to make the trip to South Africa.

I say “ungranted” because I felt there was little chance of New Zealand making the trip, even knowing that instead of playing off against a South American team, they’d do so against an Asian one.

Little did I know that it wouldn’t be the All Whites, but rather the Albicelestes who would make this wish an unlikely one indeed.

As this point, all of the scenarios that were possible when the qualifiers begun are still possible: both could make it, both could be eliminated or either one could qualify without the other.

I’ve said enough (and probably more than enough) about Argentina in my other post. But New Zealand just hasn’t been getting as much attention, possibly because they’ve played few matches over the last couple of years. The All Whites’ showing in the Confederations Cup certainly didn’t make for any grand hopes either.

Still, a 0-0 draw in Manama versus Bahrain means that New Zealand is closer to the World Cup than they’ve been since their only Finals appearance in 1982.

The return leg in Nov. 14 in Wellington, where it is hoped that the weather, likely to be cold and rainy, will benefit the home side. Judging from ticket sales, the All Whites should have a strong partisan crowd as well in the “Cake Tin”.

Given what I saw on Sunday,  I hope the All Whites can find a score (or hopefully two) in that game. Despite some good talent up front, particularly with Chris Killen and Shane Smeltz, I don’t fancy them to win a penalty shootout against Bahrain.

Let’s also not forget that Bahrain has been in this situation before. In the last World Cup qualifiers, they were eliminated by Trinidad and Tobago in a similar playoff. During these very same qualifiers, they beat Saudi Arabia home and away to get a chance to play New Zealand for a spot in the finals. Finally, we should bear in mind that Bahrain tied Saudi Arabia at home 0-0 in that playoff, just as they have with New Zealand, and went on to tie the Saudi’s 2-2 away from home to progress.

Still, I do believe the All Whites have a shot. They experimented in Bahrain by fielding a three-forward formation in a 3-4-3 that was probably closer to a 3-2-5, with Leo Bertos and Tony Lochhead playing as very defensive wingers.

We’ll see if manager Ricki Herbert chooses to stay with that formation, but I would prefer to see a 4-4-2 with Killen and Smeltz up front and Leo Bertos and Michael McGlinchey attacking from the sides and Simon Elliott and possibly Tim Brown in central midfield, both with a holding role to curtail Bahraini counter attacks. McGlinchey did a very good job after coming on as a substitute, giving New Zealand a lot more mobility in midfield. Elliott and Brown were never very secure in the middle and I would like to see them cutting off play more than holding and passing the ball.

I would even venture a 4-3-3 with McGlinchey-Elliott-Bertos and adding another forward such as Rory Fallon or Chris Wood. But the three-forward game in Bahrain meant that one of the strikers was always dropping back and it was killing their effectiveness. I’d much rather see Bertos and McGlinchey generating chances for the strikers to finish.

I think employing a backline of four will be crucial. The fullbacks are necessary to stop the Bahraini flights down the wings. Sunday’s game demonstrated rather conclusively that the Asians have more speed and gave the All Whites quite a bit of trouble with quick through passes that forward ran onto to generate chances. Ryan Nelsen and Ben Sigmund were solid at centreback, but neither is very fast. The speed will have to come at fullback.

I would prefer to see Glen Moss in goal over Mark Paston, but that’s not possible due to Moss’ suspension. It must be said that Paston had a very good second-half in Bahrain and the fact that the All Whites came back home with a 0-0 draw is due probably more to him than any other single player.

Anticipation is building here, even gaining a little bit of attention over the Air New Zealand Cup. The All Blacks play matches the week before (vs Wales in Cardiff) and the day after (vs Italy in Milan) the Wellington qualifier. The All Whites could, however briefly, make the country forget about their rugby playing cousins for a while. In fact, should they win and qualify, Ricki Herbert might be asked to take over the All Blacks himself given the nation’s ambivalence towards the national rugby brain trust.

All it takes is one more goal than the other guys.

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