The opening match of the OFC Nations Cup, which will also kick-off the second stage of the confederation's qualification campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, takes place on Saturday with New Zealand and Fiji determined to make a flying start.
On the pitch, New Zealand look worthy of their favourites' tag, with Celtic striker Chris Killen arriving in Auckland today fresh from his first start - and his maiden Scottish Premier League goal - for the Bhoys. The All Whites will be without Blackburn Rovers defender Ryan Nelsen, who has a hamstring injury, leaving Wellington Phoenix midfielder Tim Brown with the captain's armband.
New Zealand's squad has a youthful look to it with 13 players possessing less than 18 caps. The bulk of the experience comes from Ivan Vicelich (60 caps) and Killen (26 caps), with Duncan Oughton (18 caps), Leo Bertos (18 caps), Shane Smeltz (16 caps) and Dave Mulligan (16 caps) representing a fresh-faced support group of seasoned club professionals plying their trade mainly in the Australian A-League and in USA's Major League Soccer.
Much will depend upon Killen, who now assumes the striking role left vacant by the retired Vaughan Coveney, New Zealand's all-time top scorer. Killen's credentials to fill those empty boots look more than sound with 15 international goals already alongside his name. His CV also shows stints with Manchester City, Oldham Athletic, Hibernian and now Celtic, where he most recently featured in the SPL against Gretna and in the UEFA Champions League against AC Milan.
Fiji boss Juan Carlos Buzzetti - Tamanisau aside - has a squad that has been in place for well over a year with the majority of players coming from Fiji's number one football club, Ba. Central defender Peni Finau captains both Ba and Fiji and is seen as the rock upon which club and country can depend. Finau's brother - Osea Vakatalesau - the towering, pacy, striker, also a team-mate at Ba, hit ten goals at the XIII South Pacific Games Samoa 2007 and struck consistently during last season's OFC O-League competition.
Roy Krishna represents the future of Fiji international football and the jet-heeled 19-year-old is keen to take a leading role after being third-choice striker behind Josaia Bukalidi and Osea Vakatalesau. With veteran striker Esala Masi's international future uncertain following a knee injury prior to the XIII South Pacific Games, Krishna's hopes of seeing more pitch time look better than they did at the start of the year and his winner in Fiji's 1-0 win over a New Zealand XI in Lautoka will have done his cause no harm.
After the match had been in doubt due to the visa issues, NZF CEO Graham Seatter expressed relief that it would take place. "We're obviously delighted that the game has been confirmed. There was always a belief that it would happen but there was also a degree of doubt so it's nice that doubt has gone," Seatter said.
"This is obviously a very important match. It's the start of a very long campaign that the players are committed to, one that we're (NZF) are committed to and hopefully the public will get in behind."
Seatter is hoping for a strong show of support from New Zealanders on Saturday as Auckland's Fijian community is expected to come out in force. "Auckland doesn't have much high level football now so hopefully this is an occasion that people will grab."