Oly-Whites facing football's impossible task

TONY SMITH IN MANCHESTER
Last updated 12:00 31/07/2012
Adam Thomas
Photosport
RAPID RISE: Prior to turning out for the Oly-Whites' at the Olympics fullback Adam Thomas was playing for Waikato club side Melville United.

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OPINION: The Oly-Whites might need to call on Oz and his Auf Wiedersehen, Pet TV crew to brick up their goals in Geordie Land this week.

Neil Emblen's gallant New Zealand under-23 team play mighty Brazil in Newcastle on Thursday (NZ Time), needing a win to advance to the Olympic Games quarterfinals.

A Kiwi victory would surely rank as the biggest upset of the London Olympics. What odds would you get on that?

As tasks go, it really does rank as New Zealand Football's Impossible Dream Mark Two (the first was the All Whites' improbable march to the 1982 World Cup finals).

It's one thing riding one's luck to draw 1-1 with African continent powerhouse Egypt. But contemplating victory over Brazil is an entirely different stratosphere.

Brazil will field a clutch of superstar professionals from the Europe's most fabled clubs. Barcelona are breaking their neck - and their bank balance - to sign Neymar, who scored a superlative freekick at Old Trafford yesterday and set up two more goals in Brazil's 3-1 win over Belarus.

The Oly-Whites may have seasoned English premier league stalwart Ryan Nelsen, West Bromwich Albion striker Chris Wood, Ipswich Town centre back Tommy Smith and Greek first division midfielder Kosta Barbarouses.

But they will call on a college goalkeeper, two fullbacks from New Zealand national league clubs and an 18-year-old midfielder, Tim Payne.

As Emblen reflected, Adam Thomas was playing northern league football for Waikato club Melville just three weeks ago. Now the New Zealand right back could find himself marking Neymar or AC Milan's Alexandre Pato.

Ryan Nelsen has played in plenty of big matches where Blackburn were the underdogs against premier league aristocrats. He's earned the respect of English audiences, though yesterday was probably the first time the former Blackburn Rovers skipper has been cheered leading team out the Old Trafford tunnel.

Anyone who's seen Nelsen play knows he's not the type to run up a white flag. But the Queens' Park Rangers signing injected a healthy dose of realism when he said Brazil were a “freak show" of a team.

He knows that from first-hand experience. Nelsen and fullback Ian Hogg were in the Oly-Whites team battered 5-0 by Brazil at the Beijing Olympics.

The 2012 Brazilians are a stronger side and are expected to form the backbone of their World Cup squad when they host the 2014 finals.

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All Whites coach Ricki Herbert would be wise to adopt a similar strategy. The Oly-Whites look much more comfortable on the ball streaming forward than New Zealand teams of recent vintage.

But they're also more rock-solid at the back. Herbert - who was in Manchester yesterday as Oly-Whites technical adviser - may well have found the overlapping fullbacks in Hogg and Thomas, he's lacked at senior level.

Nelsen and Smith were colossal at centre back. Scouts at Old Trafford would have been impressed by Smith, who set up Wood's 17th minute goal and then raced back to block an Egyptian attack. He looks more suited to playing in a four-man defence than on the left-edge of the back three the All Whites have played with since 2009.

The Oly-Whites will have to contend with another difficult adversary at Newcastle. St James' Park, which looms over the Tyneside city, is usually packed with fellows like Jimmy Five Bellies, the great Paul Gascoigne's old drinking pal.

But, whereas, St James' usually rings out with brown ale-fuelled renditions of The Blaydon Races, it'll be dancing to different beat on Thursday - samba.

The Brazilian crowd lit up Old Trafford yesterday. An hour after the final whistle, a conga line of gold and green clad South Americans were still whooping it up outside the stadium, watched by bemused policemen.

Drums were beating as they snaked past the statue of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law.

They'll be in wait for the Oly-Whites on Thursday but the Kiwis won't be fazed. After all, no-one gave the All Whites a chance of getting a result against champions Italy at the 2010 World Cup finals.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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