By: Jason Pine | Sunday, October 14, 2012 5:50 PM
If the Tahitian football side needed a theme song ahead of their World Cup qualifier against the All Whites on Saturday night, Olivia Newton-John’s ‘80s classic “Let’s Get Physical” would have been perfect. The home side came out with the obvious intention to impose themselves on the New Zealand side in the quest for a win to kick-start their stuttering World Cup qualification campaign.
They were aided by a referee who was lenient at best and for the most part seemed completely oblivious to the rough-house tactics being employed by the home side. Time and time again New Zealand’s players were clattered into, hit late or barged from behind, and on only a few occasions were the fouls met with a blast from Mr George’s whistle. The increasing frustration in the New Zealand camp was obvious, but to their credit they did what needed to be done; battled hard, stuck together and put together a very impressive team performance which allowed them to board the plane home with all three points in the bag and their winning streak intact.
The much talked about move to a flat back four made very little difference in a defensive sense. Goalkeeper Glen Moss was almost completely untroubled throughout the 90 minutes and apart from a scare in the closing stages when Tommy Smith cleared a goal-bound effort off the line, there wasn’t much to concern New Zealand fans. Leo Bertos has quickly come to terms with the requirements of right-back and appears set to see out the remaining years of his career in that position for club and country. Tony Lochhead put in another good shift on the other flank and was regularly involved in attacking forays and set piece delivery. In central defence, stand-in skipper Smith was as composed as ever while Ben Sigmund was typically lion-hearted and 100 percent committed. His goal was just reward for a performance which leaves coach Ricki Herbert with some decisions to make for the return match in Christchurch on Tuesday night.
With Ryan Nelsen and Winston Reid available, does he stick with a back four or revert to the back three which has served him well in the past three years? And do Reid and Nelsen come straight back into the side? Logic would suggest that as two of the squad’s best players they would, but in place of who and in which positions? My guess is that it’ll be a back three of Reid, Nelsen and Smith with Tony Lochhead and Bertos pushing forward to become the wide men in a four man midfield. That’s extremely tough on Sigmund who was my man of the match in Papeete, but competition for places in defence is very tough at the moment.
It is in the attacking third, too. Chris Killen, Chris Wood and Shane Smeltz started this game with Jeremy Brockie and Kosta Barbarouses introduced in the second half. Barbarouses was excellent in the 6-1 mauling of the Solomon Islands last month and may earn another start in Christchurch in place of Wood who didn’t have things quite run his way in the hour he spent on the field in Papeete. Marco Rojas might also see some game time, probably from the bench. Smeltz will always start when fit and he continued his relentless march towards becoming New Zealand’s all-time leading goalscorer with the opening goal on Saturday night. It was his 23rd in full internationals, leaving him just five behind Vaughan Coveny, and with goals in each of his last four All Whites matches, the mantle may be Smeltz’s sooner rather than later.
In midfield, Ivan Vicelich impressed hugely in his 83rd full international. He’s the senior member of the side but his impact on proceedings across the ninety minutes was extremely influential. In the first half in particular he was involved time and again in midfield tussles both on the deck and in the air and on almost every occasion he emerged victorious. The younger players in the side must look at him and be compelled to lift their own performances to match the man known inside the team as “The Godfather”. A second World Cup at 37 years of age would be a fitting climax to his illustrious domestic, European and international career.
This New Zealand side seems in a very good place at the moment. I sense a steely resolve and quiet determination amongst the players to retain top-dog status in Oceania and secure their place in the inter-continental playoff which would put them just 180 minutes from Brazil 2014. Saturday night was another step along the road and while they may have be battered and bruised, they stood firm, were by far the better side and thoroughly deserved their 2-0 win.
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.
Jason is 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 white sandy beaches. Visit www.lemeridientahiti.com