NEW ZEALAND 1
Winston Reid stole a share of the points for New Zealand in the last minute of stoppage time as they claimed a credible 1-1 draw with Slovakia. The Slovakians looked set to go top of Group F after Robert Vittek had given them the lead just after half time but Reid popped up at the death to head home a dramatic leveller.
In a first half of few real chances, it was New Zealand’s Mark Paston who was doing his best to liven up affairs with some nervy goalkeeping. First he came for a corner on the half hour but missed his punch and was fortunate that Martin Skrtel knew little about his resultant header that went wide. Minutes later he made a hash of an attempted clearance but Vittek was unable to take advantage, being forced wide before shooting at a recovering Paston. Paston dealt better with Marek Hamsik’s 43rd minute shot after a freekick was played square to the Slovakian captain. At the other end, Chris Killen headed a freekick straight at Jan Mucha after four minutes and Mucha was later called into action to tip Shane Smeltz’s effort in to the side netting, although no corner was given.
Slovakia made the breakthrough five minutes after the interval via the head of Vittek. Stanislav Sestak crossed from the right and Vittek, who looked to be offside, stole behind his marker to head home from 10 yards. Vittek should have made it two after 69 minutes when he was played in after a neat Slovakian move but Reid got across to make a crucial challenge. Smeltz had a great chance to equalise with three minutes remaining but he put his header wide from Tony Lochhead’s left wing cross. Smeltz then turned provider as his cross from the left found Reid unmarked at the far post to head home in the 93rd minute of the game.
New Zealand started positively and looked to get balls into the penalty area for Smeltz and Killen to attack. For a team with few household names, there was a refreshing approach from the All Whites who took the game to their more-fancied opponents. Although few members of the New Zealand squad would make their way into the teams of most World Cup nations, there are still players who play at a decent level such as Killen and captain Ryan Nelsen. Having reached the World Cup finals, Ricki Herbert’s side seemed keen to make the most of their chance, and their failure to really open up Slovakia owed more to missing that required bit of creative quality in midfield rather than through the negative approach that has been too prevalent so far in the tournament.
Slovakia struggled to get into the match before half time, with too much of their game based around the below par Hamsik. The Napoli midfielder enjoys a lot of influence for his country despite being just 22-years-old and he struggled to stamp his authority playing to the left of midfield. Vladimir Weiss is a player of great potential but his lack of experience showed as he failed to make much of an inroad into a stubborn New Zealand defence before the break. Slovakia missed the injured Miroslav Stoch, a player the same age as Weiss but who has benefitted from first team football on loan at Twente. Stoch eventually made a surprise cameo from the bench but he was given just six minutes to show his abilities.
There was a better showing from Slovakia after the second half with Vittek and Sestak increasingly finding themselves in the game up front. The pair combined well for the opening goal with Sestak beginning to work the inside-right channel. His pace began to cause problems for the New Zealand defence and the All Whites were struggling to cope with the increased tempo of the game. Hamsik was still disappointing but Weiss appeared to have been given more licence to roam by his father, Slovakia Coach Vladimir Weiss senior. Hamsik’s lack of influence against a New Zealand midfield made up of a 36-year-old Simon Elliott and a 33-year-old centre-back filling in, Ivan Vicelich, will be a worry for Weiss senior. If he failed to have an impact against ageing legs, how will he cope against the highly-disciplined Paraguayan midfield or against a classier Italy unit who will know all about him from his club career in Serie A?
With all the teams in Group F having been in action, it is hard to make a case for anything other than Italy and Paraguay progressing to the knockout stages. New Zealand acquitted themselves as well as could be expected of a side with modest playing resources and admirably kept going until the end as they grabbed the dramatic equaliser through Reid. It is hard to see them being able to unlock the stubborn defences of Paraguay and Italy and this point will likely be the highlight of their World Cup. Slovakia will need to address the lack of concentration in defence that offered New Zealand two free headers late on, one of which resulted in them dropping what had looked a certain extra two points and their next game against Paraguay will be crucial to their hopes.
New Zealand – Paston – Reid, Nelsen, Smith – Bertos, Elliott, Vicelich (Christie 78) Lochhead – Fallon, Smeltz, Killen (Wood 72)
Slovakia – Mucha – Zabavnik, Durica, Skrtel, Cech – Strba, Weiss (Kucka 91), Sestak (Holosko 81), Hamsik – Vittek (Stoch 84), Jendrisek.