For many, New Zealand will enter next week’s OFC Nations Cup as unbackable favourites to reach the semi-finals and advance to the next stage of 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying, if not win the eight-nation tournament. Their achievements in recent years, most notably at South Africa 2010, are a testament to the All Whites' growing stature on the world stage.
Yet just four years ago New Zealand entered the same stage of Oceania qualifying with a very different standing in their region, let alone globally. The Kiwis had crashed out in qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup with an ignominious 4-2 defeat against Vanuatu, opening the door for the Solomon Islands to reach the continental final against Australia.
However, under the tutelage of coach Ricki Herbert and with most of the squad playing professionally thanks to the commencement of Australia’s A-League, New Zealand have achieved significant growth. They eased to the Oceania crown, winning their first five 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, losing only to Fiji when top spot had already been secured, before advancing to South Africa with a narrow aggregate victory against Bahrain in an intercontinental play-off. Draws against reigning world champions Italy, as well as Paraguay and Slovakia in South Africa were irrefutable evidence of the Kiwis’ progress over a short period.
Paucity of matches
Now, after a largely barren international program over the past two years, the Kiwis head to the Solomon Islands again looking to assert authority over their Oceania rivals. New Zealand will meet Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the host nation with the top two teams in each group securing progression to a four-nation final stage, which will commence later this year. The victor of next month’s tournament will also earn passage to the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup as Oceania champions.
With matches this week against El Salvador and Honduras, New Zealand will have enjoyed some quality international outings in the final week leading into the Nations Cup. However, aside from a February match against Jamaica, the Kiwis had not taken to the field during the 12 previous months. While it is a similar tale for some of the Pacific nations, many have spent numerous weeks in camp preparing for their tilt at Brazil 2014.
New Zealand have also suffered some key injury blows with long-serving captain and All Whites icon Ryan Nelsen to miss the qualifiers due to an ankle injury suffered on recent duty with Tottenham Hotspur. Nelsen’s absence adds to an injury list which also includes Simon Elliott and Craig Henderson.
With midfielder Tim Brown now off the scene having recently, and unexpectedly, announced his retirement, Tommy Smith this week wore the armband for the first time against El Salvador. In the process the 22-year-old Ipswich Town defender became the youngest-ever All Whites skipper, as Herbert continues to search for long-term leadership options.
Ambitions and challenges
A major obstacle in the Solomon Islands, and one facing all eight competing nations, will be dealing with the strain of five games in ten days. All matches will take place during daylight hours in what is expected to be sapping heat at Honiara’s Lawson Tama Stadium. Herbert, who indicated he will make full use of his 23-man playing roster in the Solomons, is clear about his priorities.
“First and foremost, we aim to reach the semi-finals of the Nations Cup to book a place in the next stage of 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying," said Herbert. “Then we look at winning the next two games to defend our Nations Cup title and qualify for the Confederations Cup.”
“If we do that we’ll have five games in nine days in the Honiara heat so we will need to manage the playing stocks well and be at the top of our game to navigate some testing fixtures.”
New Zealand’s credentials will receive a rigorous examination in Honiara, but victory would provide another FIFA Confederations Cup appearance, and potentially provide a perfect springboard for a fresh assault on the world stage the following year in Brazil.