Ten-man Oly-Whites grab opening victory
A ten-man New Zealand side have ground out an opening 1-0 win over Papua New Guinea on the opening day of the OFC men's Olympic qualifiers at Owen Delany Park in Taupo.
A polished finish from fleet-footed substitute Sean Lovemore in the 73rd minute eventually sealed the win but the weight of chances for the home side should have seen a ring-rusty New Zealand enjoy a far more comfortable first step on the road to London.
Papua New Guinea were well organised defensively under the guidance of former Socceroos coach Frank Farina but New Zealand still rattled the woodwork twice in the first half and had shots saved, blocked or sail wide.
"It wasn't the statement we wanted to send out there today," said New Zealand coach Neil Emblen,
"But we still looked hard to score against, limited their chances and got away with a 1-0 win.
"It was a good effort to win with ten men."
"Goals change games and if those first half shots go in then we could've had a comfortable win and everybody's happy. Hopefully we save those goals for when we need them, because one was good enough today but there is certainly a lot to improve on."
The dismissal of Dakota Lucas for abusive language towards an opponent 10 minutes into the second half could have been a game-changer but New Zealand responded with some of their best passages of possession and still created more chances than their opponents.
Louis Fenton had a strong penalty appeal turned down in the 65th minute while Lovemore went close to steering Jason Hicks' cross in just a minute before successfully converting his match winner.
The result leaves New Zealand needing just a draw from their second Group B match against Tonga on Tuesday to progress to the semifinals. They will be without the suspended Lucas for that match but will have Melbourne Victory's Marco Rojas to call on after he joins the team on Saturday evening.
Earlier on day one, Fiji claimed a crucial 2-0 victory over the Solomon Islands in Group A thanks to goals from Esava Naqeleca and Archie Watkins, while Vanuatu, led by a five minute second half hat trick from by Sailas Namatak jumped to the top of the group with a resounding 8-0 win over American Samoa.
The tournament winners will book a place at the London Olympics.