The All Whites are having to come to terms with Ryan Nelsen's retirement and it's not something striker Shane Smeltz thought they would have to do during the present World Cup campaign.
Ricki Herbert's side takes on New Caledonia in Dunedin on Friday night and a win will see them progress to November's intercontinental playoff against the fourth-placed team from Central and North America for a spot at next year's World Cup.
The All Whites should be able to secure top spot in Oceania without Nelsen but he was immense in the playoff games against Bahrain four years ago that got them to the 2010 World Cup and his presence this time around could have been critical.
Friday's match is the first time the All Whites have assembled since Nelsen's retirement to take over as coach of MLS outfit Toronto and Smeltz admitted it was strange to not have him around. A new captain will also be named, with Tommy Smith and Winston Reid the leading candidates.
"It came out of the blue," Smeltz said. "He's been a fantastic player throughout his career and will be missed but, at the same time, we have some good players in that position who can cover and some young players coming through.
"It was always going to happen at some stage and it was probably coming up not too far around the corner anyway but it came a little earlier than we thought. We definitely thought he would have been around for the rest of this campaign. We have to move on because these games are crucial."
Smeltz remembers only too well what happened against New Caledonia last June, when they were tipped up by Les Cagous 2-0 at the Oceania Nations Cup, and is intent on making sure they have progression to the intercontinental playoff wrapped up before heading to Honiara to take on the Solomon Islands in their final Oceania qualifier on Tuesday.
They have won all four World Cup qualifiers since the Nations Cup by a margin of 13-1 and Smeltz scored in three of the games. It has seen him take his international goals tally to 23 and overtake Steve Sumner (21) and Brian Turner (22) to sit behind only Vaughan Coveny (28) on the all-time goal-scoring record. The 31-year-old is also on the verge of becoming just the 14th person to play 50 A internationals for the All Whites - he presently sits on 48.
The goals have dried up for Smeltz in the A-League, however. The two-time A-League golden boot winner and 2008/09 Johnny Warren medallist for the league's best player has scored just seven goals this season for a Perth outfit who sit eighth on the table.
"It's been a disappointing season so far for Perth," Smeltz said. "There have been a few changes and issues at the club and that never helps.
"This is probably the first season I have missed so many games. With injury and international duty, I have missed eight games and that's a fair chunk of the season. I would like to think there would have been a few goals in that. It hasn't been that bad if I really look at it but it's just one of those seasons you have to put behind you."
Smeltz is still the All Whites' premier striker and Herbert has plenty of options up front with the likes of Chris Wood, Jeremy Brockie, Chris Killen, Marco Rojas and Kosta Barbarouses.
Brockie could be employed in the wing-back role, especially with Tony Lochhead a serious doubt with a leg injury picked up in Wellington's 2-1 in over Perth on Sunday.
- APNZBy Michael Brown Email Michael