Nelsen pivotal to Oly-Whites' confidence game
Coach Neil Emblen hopes captain Ryan Nelsen will be as inspirational at the Olympics as he was at the World Cup.
Emblen admits the New Zealand Olympic team are underdogs in their qualifying group but he's “quietly confident" they have the firepower to beat Belarus in Coventry tomorrow morning (NZ time).
He said Nelsen's influence was strong in 2010 and would be “even more now, leading a group of young players who respect what he's done in the game".
Nelsen helped convince the All Whites not to be overawed in South Africa because although their opponents, Slovakia, Italy and Paraguay might have been technically better, they were not fitter, faster and stronger.
That mentality ensured the All Whites were not overawed. Instead, they returned home from South Africa as the only unbeaten team after three draws.
Emblen sees a similar situation confronting the Oly-Whites at the Games. “Slovakia were the same [in 2010] as Belarus, Paraguay were a little like Egypt, and Italy were like Brazil.
“We just keep reminding the boys, it's 11 versus 11," Emblen said.
Nelsen, at 34, is twice the age of Burnley rookie Cam Howieson. The skipper is one of three over-age players in the largely under-23 Olympic squad - the others are striker Shane Smeltz and midfielder Michael McGlinchey, though the latter, at 25, still looks young enough to meet the age cutoff.
In fact, Nelsen quipped before the World Cup that he thought McGlinchey, who was once on Glasgow Celtic's books, was the ballboy when he first made the All Whites squad.
The over-age trio's experience will be vital to the Oly-Whites.
Emblen's side has a strong “spine", with Smeltz playing up front behind tall targetman Chris Wood, McGlinchey pulling the strings as playmaker and Nelsen anchoring the defence with his All Whites' captaincy understudy, Tommy Smith, from English tier-two team Ipswich Town.
Emblen said All Whites wingers Kosta Barbarouses and Marco Rojas had been looking sharp at training and he thought the Oly-Whites, after tough friendlies against Japan and South Korea, were capable of creating and taking more chances.
“We are now winning the ball in good areas," said Emblen, who rates his team a chance of “surprising a few people".
Belarus represent their best chance of success. The Oly-Whites' adversaries are, by and large, drawn from the Belarusian domestic league. But the side from a former Soviet republic are no mugs - they finished third in the European under-21 championships to qualify for the Olympics behind Spain and Switzerland.
All Whites' coach Ricki Herbert scouted Belarus during their friendly defeat to Japan and has passed his dossier to Emblen, who has prepared a plan around the team the Belarusians fielded in the first half against the Japanese.
Emblen expects Belarus to maintain their 4-4-1-1 shape and is satisfied his side has the ability to cope with any adjustments.
The Oly-Whites were still sweating over right back Adam Thomas recovering from a niggling thigh injury and awaiting the all-clear on All Whites goalkeeper Jake Gleeson who had groin strain. “The way he's recovering, I think he would have a good chance of being 100 per cent fit," Emblen said.
Gleeson trained with the Oly-Whites in Coventry and was “diving about", trying to prove to Emblen and assistant Chris Zoricich that he was ready to meet Belarus.
But the final decision could come down to whether Gleeson can kick the ball comfortably.
Emblen said kicking was a vital part of a keeper's game now. The Oly-Whites brought Wellington goalkeeper Scott Basalaj to London on standby for Gleeson.
But Emblen now looks likely to name Gleeson and his regular deputy, Michael O'Keeffe, for the Belarus game in full confidence Gleeson will be fit for later pool play games.
“If he can be 100 per cent fit a couple of days later, that might be something we look at.
“If we take Jake out of this game, Jake's competition would be over and Scott would have to be in [for the rest of the tournament]."
Emblen said he had full confidence in O'Keeffe, who never looked flustered since taking over from Gleeson against Korea and in starting the final buildup game against the United Arab Emirates.