| Friday, October 12, 2012 8:03 AM
The All Whites have arrived in Papeete ahead of their World Cup qualifier against Tahiti tomorrow night. There was a ballot held before the five-hour flight to determine which of the playing squad would enjoy the chance to stretch their legs in the three available business class seats. The very happy winners were goalkeeper Mark Paston, defender Ben Sigmund and striker Shane Smeltz who gleefully took advantage of the extra room and personal service at the front of the plane.
We arrived on a steamy, but not unpleasant night and the All Whites boarded their bus for the short journey to the team hotel. They’ll train twice today, including the chance to check out the match venue – Stade Pater – early this evening.
Formation-wise, Ricki Herbert has decided to go with a flat back four for the first time since the 2009 Confederations Cup. Shortly after that tournament he reverted to the three-man defence which served him well through the 2010 World Cup qualifiers against Bahrain and the World Cup itself in South Africa. He’s stuck with a back-three ever since, and while there were tactical reasons for reverting to and retaining this formation, the lack of a quality right-back has also played a big part in his thinking. However, without Winston Reid and Ryan Nelsen at the OFC Nations Cup this year, the team struggled playing with only three at the back in the oppressive Honiara heat.
Leo Bertos has become the new right-back at the Phoenix this season and after a solid debut against Sydney FC last weekend, he’ll slot into the position for the All Whites tomorrow night. Tony Lochhead will take up his familiar left-back role, with Sigmund partnering Tommy Smith in central defence. With Paston in goal it’s a familiar looking defensive line; four of those five played the same roles for the Phoenix on Saturday night.
In the attacking third, the extra physicality of the Tahitian defence will likely see a front three of Smeltz, Chris Killen and Chris Wood start the match. Smeltz needs just one goal to go outright second on the list of all-time goalscorers for the All Whites (he currently has 22, level with Brian Turner) and with former Phoenix team-mate Vaughan Coveny just six goals ahead of him, it seems inevitable Smeltz will eventually surpass him. For his part, Smeltz wasn’t even thinking about records; he told me those are the sorts of things that are nice to reflect on at the end of a career, not during one.
The biggest selection puzzle for Herbert is in midfield. Ivan Vicelich looks likely to screen the back four and Michael McGlinchey is now a regular in the starting eleven. The other midfield slot could go to a number of players, but with a three-man attack in place already, it’s likely Marco Rojas, Jeremy Brockie and Kosta Barbarouses will start this match on the bench, leaving the remaining midfield slot to go to one of Blackburn teenager Tim Payne or LA Galaxy’s Dan Keat. Payne has a handful of All Whites appearances to his name, including two starts, while Keat has appeared just once for New Zealand (off the bench against Jamaica in February), so it might be Payne who gets the nod.
Jason Pine will provide a full match commentary of the World Cup qualifier on Radio Sport from 7pm on Saturday night NZT. Follow him on Twitter: @pineyzb
Jason flew to Papeete courtesy of Air Tahiti Nui, offering flights to Los Angeles and connections to fifty US cities. Their award-winning service is the best way to travel to the most beautiful islands in the world. Visit www.airtahitinui.co.nz to plan your adventure. He is also staying at Aggie Grey’s Le Meridien, a modern and luxurious resort at the edge of a lagoon on one of the island’s most beautiful whit sandy beaches. Visit www.lemeridientahiti.com
Photo: Dan Keat training in Auckland earlier this week (Getty Images)