Thomas-inspired New Zealand seal play-off spot
New Zealand have secured top spot in Group A and a place in November’s Oceania play-off with a comfortable 2-0 win over Fiji in Wellington.
Ryan Thomas was the All Whites’ hero, scoring a brace - his first goals at international level - to see off a Fijian side beaten by an identical scoreline in the reverse fixture on Saturday. The victory established an unassailable nine-point lead over New Caledonia for Anthony Hudson’s side, who can now look forward to November’s play-off against the Group B winners.
Hudson had opted to freshen up his team from that victory at the weekend, making a clutch of changes that resulted in the captaincy going to Andrew Durante and debuts being handed to the Ingham brothers, Dane and Jai – the latter as a second-half substitute. Veteran striker Shane Smeltz also came into the side and was immediately in the heart of the action, narrowly missing out with two efforts inside the opening seven minutes.
Fiji occasionally threatened on the break, and skipper Roy Krishna might have done better than blazing over at the end of a promising counter-attack. But New Zealand remained dominant throughout and came within a whisker of taking the lead on 25 minutes, when Tommy Smith’s header rebounded back off the crossbar.
The Wellington crowd didn’t need to wait long for a goal, though, with the deadlock broken just two minutes later. Thomas claimed it, firing superbly into the bottom corner following a clever lay-off by the lively Smeltz.
The 22-year-old, who plays his club football for PEC Zwolle in the Netherlands, clearly enjoyed his moment, and there was to be more for him to celebrate midway through the second half. His second goal arrived on 68 minutes and, again, it was an excellent finish. This time, Thomas scored with his head, providing a deadly glancing touch to Tom Doyle’s inviting cross and, in the process, ending any lingering Fijian hopes.
It was to a standing ovation that the two-goal hero departed the field six minutes from time, and he and his team-mates can now begin preparing for the FIFA Confederations Cup before tackling that vital November play-off.