The penultimate matchday in Oceania’s qualifying series for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ is set to be pivotal as the section’s two top teams - New Zealand and New Caledonia – do battle with their Brazil 2014 aspirations on the line. The stakes will be high for both sides, with a win for New Zealand securing passage to the intercontinental play-off against a CONCACAF opponent, while failure to claim all three points will set up a nail-biting finale next Tuesday.
The other contest between Tahiti and Solomon Islands features two teams out of contention, although it is a crucial outing for the former as they prepare to represent the continent in June’s FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013.
Such is the unusual geographic status of the region that the two matches will book-end the globe’s entire FIFA World Cup qualifying programme for Friday. New Zealand’s home fixture in Dunedin will kick-start a massive programme of qualifiers across four continents on the day, before wrapping up some 24 hours later in Papeete on the other side of the international dateline as Tahiti play hosts. FIFA.com takes a closer look at Friday’s action in Oceania.
The big game
New Zealand-New Caledonia
The pair are runaway leaders in the third and final stage of Oceania qualifying, with the home side recording a perfect four wins from as many starts. The New Caledonians boast three wins from their four outings, having lost 2-0 to the All Whites on home turf last September. The pressure remains on Les Cagous who know that defeat will end their Brazil 2014 aspirations. However, a shock victory for New Caledonia – whose goal difference is only one in arrears of the Kiwis - would leave the pair equal on points heading into next Tuesday’s final matchday. The All Whites will face a tough ask in the searing afternoon heat in the Solomon Islands, while New Caledonia return home to host Tahiti in the Francophone derby.
In contrast to the oppressive Honiara conditions they can expect next week, New Zealand will host New Caledonia in Dunedin in a rare match for the southernmost of New Zealand’s four traditional main cities. The fact that Antarctica is the next southerly landmass provides an indication of the vast contrast with typical conditions in the Pacific Island nations.
The contest will provide an opportunity for the All Whites to take a modicum of revenge over New Caledonia, who triumphed in last year’s OFC Nations Cup semi-final – which also doubled as the second stage of Brazil 2014 qualifying. Les Cagous, in turn, were beaten by Tahiti in the continental final. New Zealand will enter the contest virtually at full strength, although strong-armed defender Ben Sigmund will miss the contest following an accumulation of yellow cards while a host of other players will be walking the suspension tightrope. The match will also mark the start of a new era with West Ham United defender Winston Reid given the captain’s armband following the recent retirement of All Whites icon Ryan Nelsen.
The other contest
On the surface there appears little on the line in Papeete when Tahiti host Solomon Islands in French Polynesia. Both teams have long been out of contention, registering just a win between them, as the Solomons secured a 2-0 home victory over Tahiti last September. However, for Tahiti and their coach Eddy Etaeta the match represents another opportunity to build cohesion as they prepare to face the world’s elite at the FIFA Confederations Cup.
“Every second we have on the pitch is a second we have to build our team for Brazil,” Tahiti goalkeeper Mikael Roche recently told FIFA.com. It is has been a year of contrasts for Tahiti with their four successive FIFA World Cup defeats preceded by a five-match winning effort to claim the continental crown last June.
Solomon Islands, for their part, seem focussed on the future with a number of uncapped players to make the convoluted and long trip east. Henry Fa’Arodo and Benjamin Totori, who plies his trade with A-League club Wellington Phoenix and is the Bonitos' lone full-time professional, are the only headline names in a youthful squad.
What they’re saying *“New Zealand are more experienced at playing high level matches than us and we have to be realistic. But we are not going there to be the victims and will keep fighting until the end.” *New Caledonia captain Olivier Dokunengo
“New Caledonia have had a very good campaign. We are the only side to beat them to date so they are right there in the mix and they still have a strong challenge."New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert
The number 8 – The number of goals scored by burly New Caledonia attacker Georges Gope-Fenepej in Oceania’s Brazil 2014 qualifying campaign. The Troyes-based Gope-Fenepej sits one clear of team-mate Jacques Haeko and New Zealand striker Chris Wood.
OFC final round, matchday 5 *22 March
*New Zealand - New Caledonia (Dunedin)
Tahiti – Solomon Islands (Papeete)
OFC final round, matchday 6 *26 March
*Solomon Islands – New Zealand (Honiara)
New Caledonia – Tahiti (Noumea)