BY CRAIG STEPHEN
This weekend’s first leg World Cup qualifier in Wellington, and the return leg in midweek in Lima, will reveal how much the All Whites have come under English coach Anthony Hudson.
The likelihood, and predictions, are that play-off opponents Peru have far too much of an all-round game for New Zealand, even without suspended captain and star striker Paolo Guerrero, but there’s hope that the Oceania champions are holding back their best for the fifth-best South American team in the qualifiers.
That hope seems partly based on the Peruvians failure to qualify for the World Cup finals since 1982 – even New Zealand have appeared on the global stage since then – and that no one Down Under really knows who they are. Better them than the risky Argentinians or tricky Colombians and Chileans who could have been their foes the universal cry has been, from the team management to the fanbase. Hell, there’s even some talk that the long trek from Lima to New Zealand might affect the Peruvians. As if the return journey won’t impact upon the All Whites!
If that is the actual thinking, then New Zealand could be in for two testy evenings. Peru are a top ten-ranked side with a better record this year than their continental rivals, including the one with Messi and co. A team that has faced down the volatility of crowds in Buenos Aires, Bogota and Rio de Janeiro is unlikely to find the relative passivity of 38,000 mainly white-shirted fans in Wellington a daunting prospect.
But Peru’s lack of experience at the highest level in the past 35 years is less about skill than competition. Even Bolivia and Venezuela, South America’s weakest sides, are far tougher foes than the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia.
New Zealand qualified for the 2010 finals in South Africa on the back of a merited victory over Bahrain, and left unbeaten having drawn against Slovakia, Italy and Paraguay. That success has, however, been followed by a return to relative mediocrity, including a heavy two-legged defeat to Mexico four years ago at this same stage and three defeats in this year’s Confederations Cup, albeit against three top sides in Russia, Mexico and Portugal. The way the Portuguese toyed with them in the final group match in Russia suggests they are far short of quality at this level; the way they battled hard against Mexico and showed glimpses of class against the Russians also suggests that they are a side that won’t let a bigger reputation frighten them off.
To see off the higher-ranked Peruvians, the All Whites will need to be at their very best, and face a Peruvian side that have already peaked by playing 18 South American qualifying games, and have little left.
Lowly-ranked sides such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have exposed the All Whites’ lack of pace and natural skill, so what hope have they against a side full of overseas-based professionals? The New Zealanders will need to utilise their best assets, use of set pieces, get the ball to Burnley’s big man Chris Wood, upset the Peruvians’ pace and bully their opponents from the get-go. Hudson needs to adeptly use substitutes for maximum effect, the reason, therefore, why he has brought back two veterans, Rory Fallon and Jeremy Brockie after over a year in the international wilderness. Hudson also needs to let the most talented player among the squad, Marco Rojas, let loose on the Peruvians.
If all the best the New Zealanders can muster – West Ham’s Winston Reid, Ryan Thomas, Michael McGlinchey etc – can avoid injury and hit top form twice in four days, the All Whites could be on their way for a third, improbable appearance at the sport’s premier tournament. A big slice of luck may also be required.
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