Soccer: All Whites show their pedigree

By Michael Brown

The All Whites were left frustrated after their 3-1 defeat against Slovenia yesterday, and that's a good thing.

It shows just how far this side has come to walk off the park not content with a good performance against a side ranked in the world's top 25.

They were frustrated by some officious refereeing, clerical errors by Fifa (that meant both Jeremy Brockie and Ryan Nelsen had to change shirts), their own silly mistakes that were punished and some wasteful finishing.

Yesterday's result is not necessarily a bad thing for the All Whites.

It will bring the players back down to Earth - if they needed to be grounded - after their incredible 1-0 win over Serbia and remind them how difficult their task will be in South Africa.

But there was enough from yesterday's performance to remain optimistic that something special could still happen at the World Cup.

Tactically, the All Whites were sound. They kept their shape well, the back three were strong, they created numerous chances up front and they came off the park without any new injuries.

The midfield were sloppy at times, particularly Tony Lochhead and Simon Elliott, who had previously been in good form.

"[We are frustrated] because I think we created a hell of a lot of chances tonight," coach Ricki Herbert said. "On another day we probably could have scored four. But a couple of free kicks and the 'keeper drops the ball and it makes things hard.

"Slovenia are in the top 25 in the world. It would be unfair to say we shouldn't have got something from [the game] because we could have. Absolutely.

"We need to be much more clinical. We had four or five goalscoring opportunities and we took one of them. If we can keep the percentage of chances coming and increase the percentage of the ones hitting the back of the net, it will stand us in good stead."

Herbert made only one change during the match, despite pre-match assurances he would ring the changes in the second half, when Brockie replaced Chris Wood at halftime. Herbert said he wanted to tighten things up in the second half and felt the best way to do that was to stick with the players on the park.

It has gone a long way to revealing who he will select to play Slovakia and it wouldn't be unreasonable to suggest Chris Killen will be the only change in place of Wood.

The young striker has looked a handful in general play but has struggled in front of goal, although the Slovenian goalkeeper pulled off one miraculous save when the score was 2-1. His wedding and then a tight calf have kept Killen out of the last two games.

Tommy Smith was again excellent at the back alongside Nelsen and looks a quality addition to the side, while Winston Reid also had another strong game. Ben Sigmund and Ivan Vicelich will be given an opportunity to oust Smith and Reid in their final warm-up against Chile on June 9 but Herbert is eyeing that match as little more than a training run.

He said he will rest a lot of his key players to ensure they don't pick up injuries and it's a wise approach.

"I don't think I'm too far away from [deciding on the starting XI]," Herbert said. "I think we are getting close to how we want to play and who we want to play. There are one or two [players] to consider but come the 15th [of June] we will put a team out who we think is good enough to beat Slovakia."

There is a real belief now that might be possible. Before the games against Australia, Serbia and Slovenia it might have been interpreted as little more than fighting talk.

But the All Whites have shown they can compete. They aren't skilful enough to maintain possession for long periods and will come under sustained pressure because of it but they are creating chances and coping reasonably well on defence.

"I think we are punching way above our weight now," Herbert said. "It's great. If anybody wants to take us lightly at the World Cup, then good luck to them."

- Herald on Sunday

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