All Whites will feel Winston Reid's absence all around the park, not just at the back
OPINION: It's hard to overstate just how big an impact Winston Reid's absence will have on the All Whites next month.
The West Ham United defender has had surgery to fix a problem the team doctor "had never seen before," and will miss the Confederations Cup, which had been shaping as a real chance for the national team to claim a scalp on the world stage.
For large stretches of the event, the All Whites will likely be pinned back on the edge of their own box, defending by booting or heading the ball as far away as possible. And while Reid is clearly an upgrade over his fellow central defenders - the likes of Andrew Durante, Michael Boxall, Themi Tzimopolous, and Tommy Smith - those are tasks they can all do to a similar extent.
What they will miss is Reid's awareness, and his sixth sense, nurtured in the pressure cooker of the Premier League, of where and when things are going to happen, that allows him to anticipate attacks and shut them down early. None of his peers are on his level in that regard, and his ability to cover up for their failings is crucial.
But that will not be the biggest difference between him and his replacement in the All Whites' starting XI.
For a long time, I have been enamoured with Reid's passing skills - going back to a World Cup qualifier against the Solomon Islands in September 2012, where he floated ball after ball onto the heads of the big men up front. And last week, I found myself watching the All Whites' draw with the USA last October, where the same quality shone through. Not just from his foot to Chris Wood's head either, but from his foot to Wood's feet as well.
Having someone who can pass from the back with such accuracy will mean a great deal to an All Whites team that is likely to see less of the ball than their opponents, as it will allow them to launch attacks without first moving the ball into midfield. And without Reid, they no longer have that person.
Not only will it make it harder for them to attack, but it will also make it harder to relieve the pressure that will surely come. It is no coincidence that the All Whites' best performances under Anthony Hudson came last October in the United States, where he had Reid's services for just the second time in his tenure.
The one shining light is that Hudson had to know Reid's absence was a possibility, and so it won't have taken him by surprise. He'll already be looking for ways to compensate, and he won't let his players' attitudes dip for a second.
Looking at who awaits the team in Russia, there was plenty of reason for him, his men, and fans to be cautiously optimistic.
The hosts were bad at last year's European championships, and though they have changed coaches since, they haven't shown any huge signs of improvement. Throw in the pressure of being the hosts, and playing in the opening match, and you can see vulnerabilities.
As for Mexico and Portugal, well, yes, those are tough assignments. But the All Whites did push a (different-looking) Mexico last October, and Portugal bored their way to the European title last July, rather than blitzing it. None of them are Germany, for example, the world champions who will play in the other group and would be near untouchable.
Without Reid, that cautious optimism has now taken a blow, and come the end of June, we may well be left wondering what if.