New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert knows better than most the perils of FIFA World Cup™ qualification, having been a key member of the nation's only successful campaign to date. Now, as mentor of the current generation, Herbert is half-way to repeating the legendary success achieved in reaching Spain 1982, after his All Whites side recorded a scoreless draw in the first leg of the Asia/Oceania play-off against Bahrain on Saturday.
Both teams have a month to muse what might happen on 14 November in the New Zealand capital Wellington, but it is the Kiwis that hold a slim advantage thanks to a hard-fought draw in the dizzying heat of Manama. Conditions could well be at the other end of the spectrum next month, with 'Windy Wellington' renowned for its unpredictable weather.
It is the first time that New Zealand have been 90 minutes away from the holy grail of world football since that breakthrough success achieved by Herbert and company. For Bahrain, conversely, they were involved in an intercontinental play-off four years ago only to suffer the heartbreak of 2-1 aggregate loss to Trinidad and Tobago, narrowly missing out on a berth at Germany 2006. However Bahrain do have recent experience of victory on the road after booking their date with the Oceania champions courtesy of an away goals triumph over Saudi Arabia, despite being held goalless at home in the first leg.
Despite a four-year tenure with the national team, and holding down the coaching role at New Zealand's only professional team, Wellington Phoenix, Herbert rated the result in Manama as the best of his coaching career, saying the teams fate is in their own hands. Despite the lack of goals Herbert fielded ostensibly an attacking line-up including forwards Shane Smeltz, Rory Fallon and Chris Killen.
"Certainly in my tenure as manager of the national team, that would be the best (performance)," said Herbert. "To come here and bring that tie home like that. I'm very proud of the players.
It's in our hands now... We won't disappoint with the crowd we'll have in Wellington.
"We're under no illusions what we have in front of us. It's in our hands now, like it was in Bahrain's. You get the chance to play in front of a fantastic home crowd like Bahrain did, and we won't disappoint with the crowd we'll have in Wellington.
"I like what we saw for long periods, and whilst we were under pressure I would've been surprised if we weren't. Australia are the best team in Asia and they were put under pressure when they came here," said Herbert, referring to the Socceroos' fortunate 1-0 win in Manama, where the last-minute winner was scored against the run of play.
Home advantageThe New Zealand team are hoping a large and passionate home crowd will help the team achieve their goal. Indeed a New Zealand football attendance record would be set if, as hoped, the stadium reaches its capacity of around 35,000.
All Whites captain Ryan Nelsen, arguably New Zealand's most decorated player after five years in the hurly-burly of the English Premier League with Blackburn Rovers, is eagerly anticipating the return leg. "No matter what happens it's going to be a fantastic spectacle," he said.
"There's so much on line. It's game like this that players dream about. I love this. The bigger the game the better and it doesn't get any better than this. Its 90 minutes and whoever wins, wins [a place at the] World Cup. It's do or die. I love it and can't be more excited."
A cornerstone of a defence that held firm in Manama, alongside Ben Sigmund and veteran Ivan Vicelich, Nelsen rated the Reds as slight favourites prior to the first leg, saying that Bahrain's qualifying campaign - they had already played 18 qualifying matches compared to New Zealand's six - make them "huge favourites for the match and the overall tie."