New Zealand beat New Caledonia 3-1 in Noumea today to win Oceania Zone qualifying and earn the right to play off against the side that finishes fifth in the Asian preliminaries for a place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. And that was not the only reward for the triumphant All Whites, who also booked a place at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009.
Match of the day
New Caledonia 1-3 New Zealand
With Australia competing under the AFC banner for the first time, New Zealand were the obvious favourites to win the OFC preliminaries to South Africa 2010. They had, after all, lost to the Socceroos in the regional decider in qualifying for the 1994, 1998 and 2002 FIFA World Cups.
However, the emergence of Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, the teams New Zealand had for company in the four-team concluding round, complicated their route to the title. But competition is evidently something that brings the best out of Ricki Herbert's charges, and three straight victories left them on the verge of success with two matches to spare: three points from a trip to the Stade Numa Daly would guarantee them the OFC Nations Cup crown, and the prestigious rewards with which it came.
New Caledonia began the game as the only side who could pip New Zealand to first place, but their dreams of this improbable turnaround diminished 15 minutes into the match, when defender Ben Sigmund stabbed home from close range following a corner.
The visitors dominated the first half but, invigorated by the words of coach Didier Chambaron, New Caledonia emerged from the restart as the aggressors and took just seconds to create their first chance. And what a glaring one it was, Luther Wahnyamalla rounding New Zealand goalkeeper Glen Moss only to watch Ryan Nelsen somehow clear his shot off the line.
New Caledonia did, nevertheless, restore parity on 55 minutes, Michael Hmae coolly finishing off a well-worked move.
The equaliser served to wake New Zealand from their temporary slumber. Shane Smeltz scrambled home from six yards out midway through the half to restore their lead, and if his first was opportunistic, his second, the 76th-minute goal which put the game out of New Caledonia's reach, was sublime. The 26-year-old masterfully spun his marker on the edge of the box and thumped a shot into the top corner.
The All Whites cruised to victory thereafter and will now look forward to one trip to South Africa, and prepare for their opportunity at earning another.
The contest between Fiji and Vanuatu, both on one point going into their penultimate and final games respectively, was all about pride. And following a stimulating 90 minutes in Ba, it was the home fans that were celebrating. An early opener from Salesh Kumar and Maciu Dunadamu's late strike earned Fiji a 2-0 success, but their transcendent star was Roy Krishna, 21, who created his side's second and exhilarated throughout.
There was, however, no doubt to whom the day belonged in Oceania, and New Zealand now sit just one step away from their second appearance at the FIFA World Cup™.
Fiji 2-0 Vanuatu
New Caledonia 1-3 New Zealand
1. New Zealand, 12 points from 4 games
2. New Caledonia, 8 points from 5 games
3. Fiji, 4 points from 4 games
4. Vanuatu, 1 point from 5
New Zealand-New Caledonia