The New Zealand fairytale carries on as the country continues to celebrate the greatest result in their football history for the second time in a week. Having held reigning world champions Italy to an astonishing 1-1 draw against all expectations, Ricki Herbert’s All Whites truly are the surprise package of the tournament. The Kiwi’s have yet to lose a game in their group – which is remarkable for a squad featuring just one Premiership star with the majority lower league journeymen and part-time players. Not even the most ardent New Zealand supporter would have believed two weeks ago that they would head into their final group game with a chance of progressing to the next round.
The biggest tribute that can be paid to the All Whites is that Marcello Lippi was forced to change his team’s tactical approach and personnel to break down the Kiwi’s resistance – and still it did not work. The New Zealand squad will certainly return home as national hero’s – but with qualification still a possibility it may not be as soon as they thought. Every member of the squad will be desperate to play some part in the Paraguay game – whether just to be able to say they played on the world’s biggest stage or because they genuinely believe they can play a part in defying all the odds to qualify for the next stage.
Herbert has dropped massive hints that he does not envisage any changes in the starting line-up for the Paraguay game – leaving the Kiwi’s unchanged throughout their group campaign. This means that original second-choice Mark Paston has displaced the previously suspended Glen Moss as his country’s first-choice goalkeeper. Paston’s performance in the opener against Slovakia was shaky but the former Bradford City man had the game of his life against Italy proving himself to be an excellent shot-stopper. He was more confident in coming out for high balls and crosses, and generally reassured his defence – and Herbert – who may have had their doubts following the Slovakia game.
Glen Moss will not be the only squad member having to reconcile hoping the Kiwi’s progress with having to hide his disappointment at not being involved. Central midfielder and vice captain Tim Brown stands more chance of making it onto the field if he is fit enough for the substitutes bench – but a player recovering from shoulder surgery may not be risked by the pragmatic Herbert if a place in the second round is still at stake. Brown is as influential off the field as on it and was key to the All Whites qualifying for this World Cup – so it would be a real shame if he took no part in it.
With no change to the side there is likely to be little alteration to New Zealand’s approach to Paraguay. Knowing that a win would seal an unlikely passage to the next round may encourage Herbert to ask full-backs Tony Lochhead and Winston Reid to push forward more in support of the front players. Shane Smeltz and Leo Bertos will again have licence to carry the ball forward to link up with forwards Chris Killen and Rory Fallon. The two wide players will also be aware that their pace is liable to win the sort of free-kick and set-piece situations that the Kiwi’s thrive on. The All Whites have plenty of height in their side and as shown against Italy – are dangerous from flick-ons in the penalty area. Ryan Nelsen won’t be shy about joining up from defence.
Once again the defensive aspect of the New Zealand side will be the least of Ricki Herbert’s worries. Ryan Nelsen showed his Premiership quality against Italy with a tremendous performance and Ipswich youngster Tommy Smith – soft penalty concession aside – excelled himself. With support from the more than competent Lochhead and Reid they should be able to pose enough of a test to the Paraguayan front-line desperate to ensure their own passage to the second round. The unlikely makeshift veteran pairing in midfield of Ivan Vicelich and Simon Elliott will continue to provide a sturdy presence in the centre of the park. Elliott in particular has the guile and ability to pick a pass.
Before the tournament New Zealand prepared for Paraguay with a work-out against Chile. Little did they know then how crucial this match might be. If they lose, they will return home having achieved more than they could have hoped for. If they win, they will return home national heroes – but later than envisaged.