Soccer: All Whites suffer 3-1 loss in final shakedown

New Zealand were handed a pre-World Cup soccer reality check with a 1-3 defeat to a polished Slovenian side in Maribor today.

Two brilliant free kicks from Slovenian star Milivoje Novakovic - one following an awful refereeing decision -- and a third goal from an error by New Zealand `keeper Mark Paston on the stroke of halftime saw the hosts maintain their imposing home record.

Rory Fallon scored New Zealand's only goal in the 20th minute but they created several other clear chances in some encouraging signs before their arrival in South Africa tomorrow.

The Ryan Nelsen-led defensive line was again solid as they denied the hosts in a goal-less second half with coach Ricki Herbert keeping his top lineup on the park throughout.

A week after their stunning 1-0 win over Serbia, New Zealand lined up against another tough opponent who bounced Russia out in the final phase of World Cup qualifying and enter the tournament ranked 25th in the world.

New Zealand, playing in black for a second successive match, kept an unchanged team from the Serbian win, with striker Chris Killen ruled out with a calf strain.

They were a goal down in just the seventh minute when Nelsen conceded a marginal free kick as he challenged in the air just outside the penalty area.

Novakovic curled a pinpoint effort over the New Zealand wall and Paston had no chance to his right.

After a sluggish opening stanza, New Zealand fought back as Chris Wood missed two clear chances created by Simon Elliott and Leo Bertos.

They were finally rewarded on the 20-minute mark in a near carbon copy of their winning goal against Serbia.

Jeremy Christie sent a long ball in, Wood nodded down and Fallon slammed a left foot volley to home `keeper Samir Handanovic's left.

There was major controversy as Slovenia reclaimed the lead through a refereeing blunder which left the New Zealanders fuming.

Novakovic dived theatrically as defender Winston Reid contested the ball and clearly made no contact, but the referee was convinced and Reid was yellow carded to add further pain.

Novakovic went low and to the right of the wall with his free kick and Paston again had no chance.

New Zealand had their chances to draw level again before the break, but a Shane Smeltz shot was tipped wide and Wood had his third, and best, opportunity to open his account.

An Elliott freekick and Nelsen header handed Wood a point blank opportunity but Handanovic made a sharp reaction save to tip over the bar.

The killer blow came just a minute before halftime when Paston blundered on a regulation save and Andraz Kirm tapped in from close range. Paston had joined the pre-World Cup chorus of concern about the new ball being used and its quirky flight may have caused some issues.

Herbert made just one halftime change - striker Jeremy Brockie for Wood - although his arrival was far from simple.

Sideline officials questioned Brockie's playing number and he wasn't allowed to enter the pitch before he switched to Aaron Clapham's No 16 shirt. A baffled Nelsen was also forced to depart and change shirts after the referee objected to him arriving without a number on his back after halftime.

Against predictions, Herbert kept his top side largely intact for the second half and resisted mass substitutions.

New Zealand competed strongly in the second half but couldn't crack the Slovenians. Their best chance of the half fell to Reid who was unmarked from an Elliott freekick but headed over the bar.

Slovenia 3 (Milivoje Novakovic 2, Andraz Kirm) New Zealand 1 (Rory Fallon). Halftime: 3-1.

- NZPA

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