By: Jason Pine | Saturday, October 13, 2012 9:40 AM
Game day has arrived in Papeete as the All Whites look to continue their unbeaten run in the Oceania World Cup qualifying group against OFC Nations Cup champions Tahiti.
The game has suddenly taken on even greater importance given what happened in Honiara last night. New Caledonia’s 6-2 thumping of the Solomon Islands (following on from their 4-0 win over Tahiti last month) has marked them out as real contenders in this World Cup qualifying group. If New Caledonia can win the return match back in Noumea on Tuesday (which they should) they’ll have nine points from four games, meaning New Zealand would have to beat Tahiti twice, or get a win and a draw to stay ahead in the group after four of the six matches. It would also set up a potential group-defining game between the two nations at a yet to be determined New Zealand venue on Friday March 22.
Much of the talk in the lead-up to this game has been about the absence of Premiership stars Ryan Nelsen and Winston Reid, who won’t link up with the squad until they arrive in Christchurch on Sunday. Their unavailability has led to the first defensive formation change by Ricki Herbert in over three years.
It’s been 24 matches since the All Whites last played with a flat back four. Much of that has been down to the lack of a top quality right-back, but Leo Bertos’s performance there for the Phoenix on Saturday night has convinced Ricki Herbert that he can do the job at international level. If Nelsen and Reid were available, it’s likely the back three would have remained, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens when they rejoin the squad for Tuesday’s return leg in Christchurch.
Shane Smeltz can move closer to the top of New Zealand’s all-time goalscorers list in tonight’s game. His next goal will take him outright second; he’s currently level with Brian Turner on 22 ‘A’ international goals with only Vaughan Coveny ahead of them on 28. But it’s Smeltz’s strike partner Chris Wood who’s in hot international form – he’s scored seven goals in his last six appearances for New Zealand.
In midfield, it’s a partnership which spans a generation. Teenager Tim Payne will start alongside Ivan Vicelich who’s just turned 36. When Vicelich made his All Whites debut, Payne was just one-year-old.
The All Whites will again walk a suspension tightrope in tonight’s game. Two yellow cards in World Cup qualifiers earn an automatic one-match suspension and there are no fewer than eight New Zealand players involved tonight who are sitting on one yellow. If any of Ivan Vicelich, Tommy Smith, Ben Sigmund, Jeremy Brockie, Tim Payne, Chris Wood, Shane Smeltz or Michael McGlinchey are booked tonight, they’ll miss Tuesday’s match.
New Zealand have played Tahiti thirteen times, dating back to 1952, winning nine of those matches, drawing two and losing two. The All Whites have won the last five encounters between the two, scoring 22 goals without conceding any. However, they lost the previous two matches – 1-2 in Papeete in 1995 and 1-3 in Noumea in 1980.
Ricki Herbert has never coached New Zealand against Tahiti. The last time these two sides met was at the OFC Nations Cup in June 2004 in Adelaide, where the All Whites won 10-0. The two survivors from the eleven that started that match are Mark Paston and Tony Lochhead, while Leo Bertos came off the bench. Herbert took over as coach shortly afterwards. The last time the two sides met here in Papeete was back in June 2000 – Ivan Vicelich started that game and Chris Killen came off the bench in a 2-0 win for New Zealand.
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.
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