Confidence in New Zealand is high as they prepare to face Bahrain in Saturday’s World Cup play-off
Despite New Zealand’s insipid performance at the Confederations Cup and the absence of their most impressive player in South Africa due to suspension, the Kiwis are remarkably confident of overcoming Bahrain and advancing to next year’s World Cup finals.
That confidence stems largely from a perception of Bahraini weakness, rather than any claims of their own to strength. Bahrain, after all, has a population of just 800,000 and an undistinguished soccer history. Moreover, New Zealand Football’s spies at the play off with Saudi Arabia have been damning their opponents with faint praise.
Certainly, there was a huge sigh of relief Down Under when the Saudis succumbed. Facing a team with their international experience before 71,000 fervent fans in Riyadh was not something the New Zealanders were relishing.
Coach Ricki Herbert was quick to point out that he believes Manama will be far less intimidating, whilst his assistant, Brian Turner, almost equally hurriedly, focused upon Bahrain’s poor away record.
All this ignores Bahrain’s place higher than New Zealand on FIFA’s ranking table and the fact any team emerging from the grueling Asian World Cup qualifying tournament in fifth place must, at the very least, provide a stern challenge for a team of the All Whites’ limited ability.
FIFA’s assessment of the Oceania champions as the world’s 100th best senior international combination is based largely on games in which their captain and inspiration Ryan Nelsen did not appear.
Injury prevented Nelsen from participating in the Confederations Cup and his return both strengthens a sometimes flimsy defence and greatly boosts team morale.
The recruitments of Rory Fallon and Michael McGlinchey, who have represented England and Scotland respectively at schoolboys international level, also bolster the team.
Although known more for the quality of his goals than the quantity of them, Plymouth Argyle’s Fallon gives the Kiwis added firepower up front. Not that they were lacking in that area, being able to call upon the Australian A League’s most potent striker, Shane Smeltz, and two other British based professionals in Chris Killen (Celtic) and Chris Wood (West Bromwich Albion).
McGlinchey might prove to be the more valuable of the two acquisitions. The Celtic discard is now plying his trade successfully with A League outfit Central Coast Mariners and could provide the midfield guile sadly lacking in recent All Whites outings. They have had to rely too greatly upon speedy but erratic winger cum deep lying midfielder Leon Bertos to create chances.
The presences of Nelsen, Fallon and McGlinchey more than offset the loss of goalkeeper Glenn Moss, now serving a four match ban for abusing a referee during the academic World Cup encounter in Fiji last year. Mark Paston, who was once on the books of Walsall and Bradford City, is a competent understudy.
More worrying are a very obvious vulnerability at right back, concerns over aging key players Simon Elliott and Ivan Vicelich to withstand the heat and humidity of Manama, the form of Wellington Phoenix, who supply six squad members and presently lie second from bottom in the A League, and the lack of opportunities for the team to jell.
Bahrain, with a long World Cup campaign behind them, will almost certainly be the more cohesive unit, particularly in the middle of the park, where they must endeavour to overwhelm a side playing in unfamiliar conditions.
If New Zealand can fly back to Auckland with a draw or narrow loss and, preferably, an away goal to show, then, and only then, can they justify their confidence.