Leo Bertos tackles new role with fresh gusto
A permanent move to right back might be just the fresh challenge Leo Bertos needed to revitalise his football career, for both club and country.
Approached about a move to the defence by Wellington Phoenix and All Whites coach Ricki Herbert in the club's off-season, Bertos admits he didn't know quite what to think about the idea.
Apart from a couple of years as a right wingback for the All Whites, the 30-year-old had always been a wide attacking player better known for assisting goals than preventing them.
But right back has been problematic for both the Phoenix and All Whites for what seems an eternity, and Herbert looked to Bertos to fill the void, first for the Phoenix but now also for the All Whites.
With captain Ryan Nelsen and fellow defender Winston Reid out of tonight's World Cup qualifier against Tahiti in Papeete, Herbert is almost certain to go with a back four for the first time in three years, rather than the now customary back three, and Bertos will be the right back.
“I've been adjusting to it the last month or so and it's been interesting,” Bertos said yesterday. “I didn't think I'd enjoy it as much as I have done, actually, and I guess it's up to me to make that position my own now.
"That spot is available for the Phoenix and All Whites and I want to make it my own.”
Herbert and Bertos spoke about the move in the A-League off-season, initially to cover for injuries to other prospects, but “it's turned into more of a permanent thing, and I'm liking it”, Bertos said.
“The main thing is defence but there's also an emphasis on attack. We've seen teams around the world where fullbacks are really another attacking player these days - they play like wingers - so hopefully I can bring that to both teams.
“The big problem for me is not getting carried away with going forward too much when we have the ball. I have to hold the reins back a bit.
"But when you're playing with guys like Siggy [Ben Sigmund], he makes sure you're not getting carried away.”
Bertos is expected to line up alongside central defenders Sigmund and stand-in captain Tommy Smith and left back Tony Lochhead tonight, in a 4-3-3 formation.
Ivan Vicelich and Michael McGlinchey should take two midfield spots and with a three-man forward line likely to be employed - most probably Shane Smeltz, Chris Wood and Chris Killen - the final midfield spot could be a toss-up between the likes of Tim Payne or Dan Keat.
Two wins against Tahiti - the two teams also meet in Christchurch on Tuesday - could secure New Zealand a berth in the World Cup intercontinental playoff against the fourth-best team from North and Central America and the Caribbean next year, depending on the results of the New Caledonia-Solomons matches.
“It's totally up to us,” Bertos said. “These two games are pretty big for us; if we don't win, it gives the other teams a sniff.”
Bertos was excited by the prospect of international football returning to Christchurch on Tuesday, for the first time in six years. “We know it's a huge football community down there, it's always a good crowd and it's nice to come back with the All Whites.
"The new stadium [in Addington] is great for football, too.”
Meanwhile, Nelsen and Reid touched down in Auckland yesterday and will head to Christchurch to prepare for Tuesday's match, having eventually been passed fit by their respective English Premier League teams following injuries last weekend.