Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Soccer: Draw provides real clarity

New Zealand All Whites player Michael McGlinchey. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealand All Whites player Michael McGlinchey. Photo / Brett Phibbs

For a friendly match organised on the fly and seen by some as unnecessary, New Zealand's midweek clash with China delivered plenty of important lessons.

The Shanghai sojourn - in which the All Whites missed a great opportunity to notch a valuable win - should have clarified several points for coach Ricki Herbert in their World Cup qualification quest.

Forfeit four at the back

Though it would be nice to have the option, a back four won't be a defensive reality over the next 12 months. The problem - which has dogged New Zealand football since 2009 - is that there are no quality options at right back.

Centre back Ben Sigmund struggled against China in the unfamiliar role and has continuing question marks over him against international opposition. Leo Bertos may develop into a competent defender but time is not on his side.

The South Africa World Cup system will remain - Ryan Nelsen, Winston Reid and Tommy Smith - flanked by wing backs who are primarily defenders against top sides.

Midfield remains the minefield

The defence picks itself, while Herbert has welcome selection headaches at the top of the park. It is in midfield where questions remain and where games are won and lost.

Michael McGlinchey is now established in the attacking midfield role but who should play alongside him?

Ivan Vicelich brings experience, physical presence and defensive nous but lacks the mobility that might be required in the bigger tests to come.

Dan Keat needs to add more composure to the promise he showed last Thursday in his first international start. Tim Payne is another option as a defensive midfielder. He offers a great engine and the 18-year-old has always played with a maturity beyond his years.

Tony Lochhead and Bertos remain the frontline contenders for the wider roles but that is as much a reflection of the lack of competition in those areas as their respective abilities and it would be good to see other challengers emerge.

Need for Ryan Nelsen

It's hardly new but the All Whites just aren't the same without Ryan Nelsen.

Defensively, they were stretched at times on Thursday and the Queens Park Rangers player brings a poise and confidence which resonates throughout the team.

Some have criticised the fact that he has missed 12 of the last 16 matches since the World Cup but when he plays, he always delivers, and it was the right call by New Zealand Football not to involve him this time.

Youth lead the charge up front

Herbert has done well to blood youth this year and it should pay off in 2013. Chris Wood gets better with every outing and Kosta Barbarouses, while sometimes still unnecessarily profligate with possession, is showing the benefits of his European experiences. On this evidence, and with Shane Smeltz to return, veterans Chris Killen and Rory Fallon will struggle to make the starting line-up.

Marco could be a match-winner

Marco Rojas could be the key to the World Cup door. He is still lightweight and can get physically overwhelmed at times but his talent - which has developed exponentially since his move to the Melbourne Victory - provides the All Whites with an attacking dimension they have rarely had in the last decade.

Still one of the best players in the A-League at beating players one-on-one, he also has outstanding vision and a range of passing few of his New Zealand team-mates possess.

His angled through ball for Lochhead on Thursday - from which Wood should have scored - was a delight and his quickness of thought, and feet, might just provide the All Whites with a vital edge over the coming year.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 19 Dec 2014 08:51:57 Processing Time: 295ms