Concacaf · Oceania · skysport.co.nz Columns · World Cup 2010

Big test in LA for the All Whites

New Zealand’s All Whites formally kickoff their preparations for South Africa 2010 against fellow qualifiers Mexico in Los Angeles’ Rose Bowl.

The setting for the match should provide good experience for the All Whites: a massive stadium with a large, loud non-partisan crowd. Make no mistake, the match may be in “neutral” ground in the United States but this is very much a home game for El Tricolor (“The Tri-coloureds”, or simply “El Tri”, as the Mexican squad is known). Strangely enough, it will be the Mexicans wearing black instead of the kiwis, as they will debut their away strip which is, for the first time ever, all black.

And it won’t be simply in name and uniform that the Mexicans are expected to be more colourful, as their squad presents a wide range of attacking options which will test a makeshift New Zealand defence. Due to injury, Ryan Nelsen is out and so is Ivan Vicelich, who is suspended. That’s two-thirds of the defensive line which helped the All Whites defeat Bahrain. In addition, an injury to goalkeeper Mark Paston — whose penalty save staved off disaster in the World Cup playoff — will mean a change in that position as well. Glen Moss will return in goal after a long suspension.

Defender Ben Sigmund will be joined by some new faces. Andrew Boyens and Steven Old are the most likely to get the start. Assuming, of course, that Ricki Herbert chooses to stay with the 3-4-3 formation which produced two shutouts for New Zealand to get them into the tournament.

Given the momentary lack of defending depth and the talent upfront, it’s quite likely that the formation will continue. Expect West Bromwich Albion’s Chris Wood to get a bit more playing time in these friendlies at forward, but the starting three is still likely to be Shane Smeltz, Chris Killen and qualifying-goal-scorer Rory Fallon.

Debut for Auckland City duo

In midfield, there are more new faces. Very new, in fact. Chad Coombes and Jason Hayne have both translated good performances in Auckland City’s two wins at the Confederations Cup into call-ups to the All Whites. Expect one, or even both, to see playing time in this match, as Herbert looks to build some depth. Midfield is probably the area with the greatest number of spots still to be decided, and candidates to fill them. Playing time could be crucial to earning not just a spot in the 23-man squad for the World Cup, but possibly a starting spot as well. Leo Bertos should lead the line, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Motherwell’s Michael McGlinchey, who showed good pace and handling in the away first leg against Bahrain.

Mexico’s line-up presents a few mysteries as well. The team struggled initially to qualify for the World Cup, thanks to an extremely ill-conceived decision to hire Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager. He was replaced halfway through the qualifiers by Javier Aguirre, who led them to the second-round of the 2002 World Cup. He managed to improve results and get Mexico into the tournament, but his more cynical tactics and preference for Europe-based players has Mexican fans still grumbling as they prepare for their fourteenth World Cup appearance.

There is certainly plenty of creative talent with Cuautehmoc Blanco, Giovanny Dos Santos, Carlos Vela and young Javier Hernández of Guadalajara. Hernández scored his first goal for El Tri in their 5-0 crushing of Bolivia last month and will likely get another start against the All Whites. Nevertheless, the makeup of Mexico’s starting eleven in South Africa is still anybody’s guess.

How it will play out

Expect Mexico to come out firing looking to get an early lead, and to keep possession. They will want to deliver a good result to impress Aguirre in order to win a spot and to calm the critics back home. They will look to keep the ball on the ground and use a quick passing game to open holes in the New Zealand defence. They are also adept at shooting from long-range, so expect a few chances to come from outside the penalty box. All Whites defenders will have to stay on their feet and move quickly to cut off passing lanes. New Zealand’s height advantage is unlikely to play a part in defence as the Mexicans are unlikely to resort to swinging crosses in from the corners.

At the other end, however, the All Whites’ physical forwards might see a few chances fall their way. Mexico will commit lots of men to attack, especially from the midfield, so New Zealand should have plenty of opportunities to generate counterattacks. That’s likely to be their best option, as Mexico will keep possession for most of this match. If the All Whites have any chance, it depends largely on their defensive effort and midfielders’ ability to contain Mexican passes into goal-scoring positions.

Given the All Whites’ injury situation, Mexico’s need to continue generating positive results, and what is essentially a loud, Mexican crowd in Los Angeles, a win is very unlikely. The value of this match for New Zealand is more in getting players more international experience against World Cup opposition and using it to build depth. As nice as a win (or even a tie) would be, the result is very much secondary.

Final score? Just count the colours: El Tri 3, All Whites 1.

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