New Zealand and their following are still coming to terms with the magnitude of their achievement on Tuesday when history was made in the last-gasp draw against Slovakia. The Kiwi’s dramatic comeback provided one of the few exciting and surprising moments of the competition so far.
Winston Reid’s thumping headed equaliser in the dying moments, gave the smallest and perceived weakest nation at this year’s tournament their first-ever World Cup point. It was not only the unexpected result confounding the expectations of pundits and neutrals alike, but the manner in which it was earned which has brought great delight to the All Whites. Throughout the game they did not deviate from Coach Ricki Herbert’s meticulously plotted guidelines and displayed their characteristic never-say-die spirit. At the same time they answered the critics who questioned whether they had earned the right to be in South Africa, after negotiating a qualifying campaign of admittedly lightweight opposition.
Even taking into account the poor showing from Slovakia prior to the game the Kiwi’s could have been considered under-strength. The ongoing absence of influential midfielder Tim Brown left Herbert opting to partner 36 year-old Simon Elliott with 33 year-old Ivan Vicelich in midfield. The veteran midfield partnership exceeded all expectations especially as Vicelich is a natural centre-half. Elliott showed tremendous stamina and work rate to make the midfield battle competitive against the likes of the highly rated and much younger Vladimir Weiss and Marek Hamsik. He tackled well, swept up loose possession and on numerous occasions picked the best passing option open to him. Herbert was also surprisingly bold in playing two up front with Rory Fallon supporting Chris Killen which provided a small number of half chances – and ensured the likes of Martin Skrtel were given plenty to do.
Outstanding displays from full-backs Tony Lochhead and Winston Reid were key to frustrating and testing the Slovakians – whether defending or pushing forward to support Leo Bertos and Shane Smeltz out wide. Reid’s nerveless showing was remarkable considering he first met his team-mates just weeks ago after the World Cup squad was announced. His decision to reject Denmark in favour of the country of his birth and Herbert’s gamble on the youngster, has proved inspired. His future career prospects will have been further enhanced by the way he ghosted behind the Slovakian defence for his goal – while scouts will have taken note of Lochhead’s smooth performance.
The biggest concern for Herbert and the most difficult decision he has to make is in regard to the goalkeeper situation. With first-choice Glen Moss serving a two-game suspension, understudy Mark Paston was the one Kiwi who did not cover himself in glory against Slovakia. A dreadful and nearly costly miss-kick was followed by a series of desperate flaps at the ball from set-piece crosses. Though Herbert might be reluctant to change the side that has started the tournament so well with team spirit in mind, the thought of Italy laying siege to the Kiwi’s goal with Moss still suspended is a worry. James Bannatyne could get the nod. Tim Brown may return to midfield depending on his fitness and that of the veterans who have deputised for him. A spot on the subs’ bench would seem to be his best hope.
With Chris Killen rested for the last 20 minutes against Slovakia there are no fresh injury doubts ahead of the forthcoming Italy game. Aside from the monitoring of Tim Brown’s recovery from shoulder surgery, Simon Elliott took a few knocks from Slovakia’s Strba but will be ready for the Italians. Despite the confidence that has grown from the Slovakia game Herbert could be tempted to be more conservative against Marcello Lippi’s side. He will know that even if Italy are as disappointing as they were against Paraguay, the All Whites have much less of a chance of gaining a result as they do against Paraguay next week. The temptation to leave Killen up front on his own, packing the defence and midfield to stifle and frustrate the Italians for as long as possible, may prove too much to resist.
Whatever happens to New Zealand against Italy and Paraguay, they will still be able to leave South Africa with their heads held high. They more than matched a more touted Slovakia side and the class of 2010 improved on their nation’s only previous World Cup experience by putting a point in the board. Just months ago, that would have been more than they had realistically hoped for.