Smeltz blows big chance
RICKI HERBERT'S near-palpable frustration at the Pravda-style rewriting of history has been understandable.
In the months since the World Cup euphoria faded, the murmurings about New Zealand's conservative approach in South Africa have grown. Suddenly, it seemed that being the first All Whites' side to reach a World Cup finals in 28 years wasn't enough. Now they have to be Brazil as well?
Last night's homecoming friendly against Honduras, the national side's first outing since their Cup efforts, became as much a test of style, as it was a celebration.
The doubters will not have been convinced, although Herbert again turned out a side who were dogged, doughty and determined, demonstrating that, while it was a friendly international, they were not here to make friends with their opponents.
In a bizarre finish, Kiwi referee Peter O'Leary awarded a highly-debated penalty for obstruction, was seemingly manhandled by Honduran goalkeeper Ricardo Canales, flourished two yellow cards, but allowed Canales to stay on the field to parry Shane Smeltz's penalty, before Smeltz smashed the rebound over the bar, then buried his head in his shirt in anguish.
So, in the end, there was just a single goal, from Chris Wood, who didn't start a game at the World Cup, but enjoyed himself here, scoring just before halftime and dropping his shorts to show he'd had the foresight to wear white Y-fronts inscribed with "Woodzie". Suitably inspired, when he came close to doubling the score in the second spell, the crowd responded by chanting "We've got Wood".
Contractually locked to North Harbour, despite some obvious misgivings about Albany's ability to draw decent attendances, New Zealand Football needed a near-capacity crowd to break even and make future home internationals viable. A mid-afternoon press release yesterday pumping a rush of late ticket sales and the possibility of a sell-out proved a touch desperate – the temporary stand behind the goals was barely needed – but the official crowd was a respectable 18,153. New Zealand began with a relatively aggressive four across the middle, with Smeltz and Chris Killen sitting behind Wood, making his first start at home, as the target man. Poor Leo Bertos on the left would've been cold. The All Whites relentlessly sent everything down their right, pushing it wide for Jeremy Brockie to chase and pump the ball into the box, where Wood may not have got on the end of many, but chased them all down with fervour.
New Zealand's attitude hasn't changed. Muscular, hard-working, their approach was not to the taste of the Hondurans, especially the tissue-paper temperament of left wing Emil Martinez.
West Ham defender Winston Reid was the epitomy. He grafted, mixed some deft, artistic touches with some old school clod-hopping and one ugly moment, where his guileless shoulder charge on Martinez earned him the game's first yellow card.
The Hondurans were rarely in it in the first half and their set-piece work was dreadful.
Their best chance came when Reid left striker Georgie Welcome unmarked at the back post, but he nodded wide.
Eventually, in first-half stoppage time, New Zealand's work-rate paid off. Brockie lofted the ball in again, Wood climbed above his marker, and his header was powerful enough that Canales could only palm it into his own net.
In a hurried start to the second spell, there were two bookings, a moment of panic when Reid went down clutching his ankle and genuine chances for Ryan Nelsen and Wood, whose header was brilliantly tipped over by Canales.
But Honduras then found their rhythm. Mark Paston had to make two good saves, but could do little to prevent Walter Martinez' 64th minute equaliser, as he headed home a curling cross from skipper Noel Valladares.
Despite the freedom to make six changes, Herbert waited until the final 15 minutes to introduce Michael McGlinchey and Jeremy Christie, and the final nine minutes to give Ben Sigmund a run.
The game appeared to be petering out, before New Zealand fired up again, Wood nearly snatching a winner, and Smeltz completely blowing one.
New Zealand (C Wood) Honduras (W Martinez). Ht: 1-0.
Sunday Star Times