All Whites will benefit from Honiara wakeup call
There has been a hardening of the resolve in the All Whites, no doubt brought about by the slap in the face that was their horror show in Honiara earlier this year.
The attitude change was noticeable as New Zealand's formerly over-achieving national football team put the finishing touches to preparations for tonight's second World Cup qualifying game in Auckland.
There was more than a touch of pragmatism about the Kiwis as a Solomon Islands team previously considered nuisance material, at best, was being treated with the respect of Brazil. Suddenly the All Whites are not only on high alert, but the blinkers are very much affixed.
This was, after all, the only unbeaten team from the last World Cup finals. Champions Spain included.
But having experienced the giddy high of rubbing shoulders with the very best in the sport, June's unthinkable Oceania Nations Cup defeat to New Caledonia in the Solomon Islands has brought the high-flyers back to earth with a thud.
Not only did the below-strength All Whites suffer an embarrassing defeat to the Pacific minnows, but they missed out on a lucrative spot at the Confederation Cup finals in the process.
In a funny sort of way, reckoned skipper and QPR defender Ryan Nelsen, who missed that match, the Honiara hiccup may turn out to be just the wakeup call the side needed as it resets its goals for another World Cup run.
"Like in any sport or business, you have to learn from your mistakes, and that was a mistake, there's no hiding from that," said Nelsen yesterday after a late-morning kickabout at Albany's Kristin School. "As long as you learn from it, you come out better for it."
Nelsen also spoke about having to be prepared to win ugly if that was what it took against a Solomons side he called unpredictable, athletic, well organised and dangerous. It's about looking to score goals and play ‘beautiful football' if the game opened up that way, he said. "But if we have to grind out a 1-nil win, so be it."
There was a similar pragmatism from coach Ricki Herbert, who will bring up his 50th international in charge of the national team tonight. As much as he respects a player like Solomons star Benjamin Totori, he has a firm fix on what his side needs to do.
"Benji is a good player. I signed him at the (Phoenix) club. Collectively they're a side that will come here pretty confident. They had a good win (2-0) at home against Tahiti (the Oceania Nations champions), but it's really up to us. If we close them down and get as much ball as we anticipate, he won't get as much either."
Herbert was also ecstatic with Friday's 2-0 victory in New Caledonia which gives his men a chance to take a firm grip on the qualifying stage tonight.
"Winning was the positive," he said. "It was really important. We had good tempo going in, the first half was great and we created a lot of chances. We probably could have won four or five-nil. Right across the board the game had a lot riding on it."
The clinical nature of the Noumea performance is why Herbert admits he's reluctant to make changes tonight, even though the depth of his strike force, with quality performers like Kosta Barbarouses, Marco Rojas and Chris Killen waiting in the wings, means he's tempted.
"We're considering a couple but I'm not really keen to change a lot of that group. There was pressure on us to win and they did it, and did it pretty effectively.
"The more points you can get on board as quick as you can, the better. The travel process isn't going to change, and we've still got some big asks to come."
The match kicks off at 7.35pm at North Harbour Stadium, with plenty of attention on the size of the crowd that rolls up. Anything less than 10,000 could see Auckland's spot on the preferred venue list at serious risk.
New Zealand (from): Mark Paston, Winston Reid, Tony Lochhead, Ben Sigmund, Tommy Smith, Ryan Nelsen (captain), 7-Leo Bertos, Michael McGlinchey, Shane Smeltz, Chris Killen, Marco Rojas, Glen Moss, Dan Keat, Ivan Vicelich, Jeremy Brockie, Kosta Barbarouses, Tim Payne, Michael Boxall, Chris Wood. Coach: Ricki Herbert.
Solomon Islands (from): Samson Koti, Hardies Aengari, Nelson Sale Kilifa, Tome Faisi, Freddie Kini, Leslie Nate, Henry Fa'arodo (captain), 8-Jeffery Bule, Benjamin Totori, Joe Luwi, Ian Paia, Gagame Feni, Joachim Waroi, Joses Nawo, Jack Wetney, Himson Teleda, Paul Hiri, Seni Ngava, Loni Garaba, Paul Huia, Emmanuel Poila, Willie Lamani, Phillip Mango. Coach: Jacob Moli.