As New Zealand approach a critical World Cup qualifier against New Caledonia in Dunedin on Friday, coach Ricki Herbert will be contemplating a rather major subplot that has the ability to seriously affect the All Whites' World Cup chances.
Put simply, up to nine frontline players are in danger of being suspended for one of the intercontinental playoff legs in November, the final step in qualification for the 2014 World Cup, assuming the All Whites emerge from the Oceania group during the next week.
Michael McGlinchey, Shane Smeltz, Winston Reid, Chris Wood, Chris Killen, Jeremy Brockie, Tony Lochhead, Tommy Smith and Ivan Vicelich are all sitting on one yellow card from the qualifying campaign to date, and would receive a one-match suspension if they pick up another booking in the qualifying phase.
There are, potentially, four matches remaining; against New Caledonia on Friday, Solomon Islands on Tuesday, and the home-and-away matches against the fourth-ranked team from CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Caribbean).
That's a lot of minutes to go without a slip-up.
The conundrum for Herbert is this; he can't afford to have players booked against New Caledonia on Friday, which would risk possible send-offs and could harm their chances of actually winning the match.
And winning is critical if they want to secure top spot in Oceania without having to go to Honiara requiring a win.
But, assuming nobody is booked at Forsyth Barr Stadium, those players would then carry their yellow cards into the final Oceania qualifying match against the Solomons on Tuesday, from which a booking would see them suspended for the away leg of the pivotal intercontinental playoff on November 15.
Even if none of the nine players are booked against New Caledonia or the Solomons, those players would then carry the cards into the away leg of the playoff and risk suspension for the home leg four days later.
It's a suspension tight rope and the only chance for them to completely wipe the slate clean before the intercontinental playoff - once again assuming New Zealand are in it - would be to get booked against New Caledonia on Friday, in a must-win match, so they would only miss the Solomons match.
One player who won't have a chance to wipe the slate over the next week is left back Lochhead, who is out injured, meaning he would carry his yellow card into the interncontinental playoff series no matter what.
Interestingly, after New Zealand's win against Tahiti in Christchurch last October, Herbert hinted he might consider asking players to pick up bookings at some point against New Caledonia, provided the result was safe.
"If we're successful and we get through to a CONCACAF playoff, what are we going to have, nine players going into an away fixture on a yellow card?," Herbert said in October.
"That's going to be incredibly difficult going into a hotbed of football with that hanging over us, so if we can wipe the slate clean, it's probably not a bad place to look."
Problem is, Fifa has made it clear they won't tolerate deliberate bookings, and will suspend anyone caught doing so.
How they prove someone deliberately sought to be booked - remembering there are subtle ways to go about it - is another story.
If New Zealand had greater depth, the yellow card situation would be a non-issue.
But truth is, the players all on the tight-rope are key members of the team and a suspension for any one of them in an intercontinental playoff would be a major blow.
Of course, winning on Friday is the priority and won't be jeopardised. New Zealand have to put yellow cards out of their minds.
But if they are 3-0 up with 10 minutes to play, the tactics will be fascinating.
The situation is all the Oceania Football Confederation's doing, and one could end up shooting themselves (and New Zealand) in the foot.
Confederations can wipe yellow cards once during qualification but Oceania, for whatever reason, decided to do that after the first stage - which didn't involve the major teams - rather than the second stage, the Oceania Nations Cup.
It would have made more sense to wipe them after Nations Cup, because now players have to go 13 successive qualifying matches, including the two intercontinental playoff matches, with just one booking in order to avoid suspension.
That's a huge ask for even the cleanest player.
CONCACAF, on the other hand, wiped the slate clean in the latter stages of qualification, meaning whichever nation plays the Oceania representative (probably New Zealand) in the intercontinental playoff will have a significant advantage, in that they'll have far fewer players in danger of being suspended for one of two matches.
- © Fairfax NZ News