Sam Malcolmson: Mexico City fans a force to be feared

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Ricki Herbert has copped some unfair criticism about the makeup of the All Whites. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Ricki Herbert has copped some unfair criticism about the makeup of the All Whites. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The All Whites will face an extra Mexican player in the form of 105,000 screaming fans at the Azteca Stadium today.

While the All Whites boast a fairly experienced side, few will have played in such a cauldron. The young guns may understandably be awestruck by the occasion - how quickly they adapt to the atmosphere will have a massive bearing on the outcome.

I have no doubt the Mexican team selection was as much a psychological one as a playing one by coach Miguel Herrera, who picked only domestic players. They will have felt the passion and pressure of the build-up so will be fired up.

It's important for Mexican pride to qualify for the World Cup finals, especially against New Zealand, who are ranked 79 in the world compared with Mexico's 24. Mexico have played in 14 World Cup finals, and the qualification of unheralded Honduras and Costa Rica will have rubbed salt into the Mexican wounds. There will be huge pressure on the match officials and history shows that 50/50 decisions tend to favour the home team in such an atmosphere.

Ricki Herbert has copped some unfair criticism about the makeup of the All Whites. He has selected his nucleus from current key All Whites, taking into account injuries, retirements, etc. I don't know what else he could have done. The brutal truth is we don't have the depth of four years ago.

While there is a base of experienced players, they are older and slower unfortunately. Ben Sigmund, Ivan Vicelich, Leo Bertos and Tony Lochhead are still capable but age is catching up with them. A new addition to the defence is Phoenix captain Andrew Durante, who is on the wrong side of 30 and is only a short-term proposition. Having said that, I am more than delighted that Durante is available for selection.

The balance and player type of this team is totally different from South Africa in 2010. We have a much more creative and attacking unit but unfortunately lack the physical stature compared with other nations. Marco Rojas, Michael McGlinchey, Jeremy Brockie and Costa Barbarouses come into this category. However when Chris Wood and Shane Smeltz are added there is no doubt it can be a pretty potent attacking unit.

The loss of captain Winston Reid - undoubtedly the fittest, strongest and most athletic defender - is huge. Unfortunately the gaping hole left by the retirement of Ryan Nelsen has not been filled and the loss of his on-field leadership has left a major vacuum.

My biggest concern is Mexico's pace in the sultry conditions at altitude. The Mexicans move the ball quicker than the All Whites and we struggled with the pace and heat at the recent tournament in Saudi Arabia. Discipline, shape, and retention of the ball will be vital.

This is a monumental task and a much sterner test than Bahrain posed in the 2010 qualifiers, but don't lose belief that we can progress. Mexico are no world beaters themselves on this year's form, have struggled to score and conceded soft goals in their qualifying games although they are boosted by their latest 4-2 win over Finland.

My wish is that the All Whites produce a result good enough so the great Wellington crowd has the chance to cheer them all the way to Brazil in the return game.

- NZ Herald

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