New Zealand Camp Focus – Promising signs ahead of World Cup kick-off

New Zealand experienced mixed fortunes with one win and one defeat in their two friendly games against European opposition in Austria last week. As the World Cup looms, Coach Ricki Herbert will be delighted with the overall progress of his squad as they punched above their weight and showed what they are capable of when performing to their best. They have had little trouble acclimatising to the difference in altitude and more than matched their opposition in both games.

The All Whites’ shock 1-0 victory over Serbia – who are ranked at 15 in FIFA’s list – served as a warning to their group opponents of their intention to be the surprise package in South Africa. Admittedly Serbia were below-par but their line-up included the likes of Nemanja Vidic and Zoran Tosic – formidable in any side. In contrast, the Kiwi’s scorer Shane Smeltz has failed to make the grade at the likes of Mansfield Town and AFC Wimbledon in recent years – which reflects the gulf in class between the nations. Inexperienced Tommy Smith and Winston Reid impressed, with Reid playing a part in setting up the goal, and staking a claim for a defensive starting berth. The All Whites displayed their terrific work-rate and ability to close down quickly and forcibly for 90 minutes – attributes that they hope will serve them well in South Africa.

A week later the All Whites were brought back down to earth by Slovenia. A 3-1 defeat would have been viewed as a creditable result prior to the win over Serbia and despite the scoreline, New Zealand were not outclassed. They competed well and the squad gained more priceless experience of playing against respected European opponents ahead of meeting Slovakia and Italy in the next fortnight. While Italy might not be too troubled by the Kiwi’s current form it will have given Slovakia and Paraguay something to think about. Aside from the encouragement of his team’s performances, Herbert will also be relieved to have come through two testing encounters with no fresh injury concerns. Their physical approach has held up well against the European style of play. Star striker Chris Killen has been rested with a slight calf problem but unlike many of his international teammates – the former Celtic striker already has plenty of top level experience to draw upon.

Vice-captain and influential midfielder Tim Brown is still racing against the clock to overcome a shoulder injury before the tournament – June 9 being the date set for the decision on whether he will make it. His standby replacement, Cole Peverley, has not featured in either of the games since joining up with the squad which is surprising considering his lack of experience at this level. His omission could be interpreted as a good omen that Brown will be ready in time. In the absence of a couple of their talisman the rest of the squad have stepped up to the mark in the two friendly games. Young forward Chris Wood has certainly taken advantage of being given a start in games and his physical presence could be a key to unsettling defences – especially if Killen is a doubt.

Driving midfielder Jeremy Christie has also impressed and if he were to start in South Africa it would seal a great comeback for a player whose career was flagging just months ago. Trialling with a club in India after being released by Wellington Phoenix in his homeland, he has since moved to American club Tampa Bay Rowdies in search of the games that cemented his selection in the squad.

The line-up for the Slovenia game was unchanged which hints that – apart from the possibility of a comeback for Brown – Herbert has settled on the team that will start the World Cup. Goalkeeper Mark Paston and Captain Ryan Nelsen will form the spine of the side with Chris Killen up front. It would appear that Christie and the 35 year-old veteran Simon Elliott will occupy central midfield in place of Brown and ahead of Michael McGlinchey. The Kiwi’s have now travelled to South Africa with their tournament opener against Slovakia just over a week away. In a couple of days they will face Chile in another warm-up game to become familiar with the South American style of play – with the group game against Paraguay in mind. Herbert will be looking to see similar standards to those set and maintained since the Australia friendly – if not another surprise result. Secretly he may be hoping that his All Whites have not peaked too soon.

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