All Whites have work cut out to make it back to World Cup

By Simon Kay at Westpac Stadium

Coach Ricki Herbert of New Zealand thanks the crowd for the final time after losing leg 2 of the FIFA World Cup Qualifier match between the New Zealand All Whites and Mexico. Photo / Getty Images.
Coach Ricki Herbert of New Zealand thanks the crowd for the final time after losing leg 2 of the FIFA World Cup Qualifier match between the New Zealand All Whites and Mexico. Photo / Getty Images.

Two consolation goals in last night's 4-2 playoff defeat in Wellington shouldn't disguise the fact that an immense amount of work is required if New Zealand is to qualify for a third World Cup finals.

The All Whites played with a level of commitment that showed they wanted to atone for last week's humiliation at the Azteca. Skipper Tommy Smith's goal line clearance sliding into the post epitomised their willingness to put their bodies on the line.

But tonight's young, makeshift line-up was no match for a side as ruthless and experienced as Mexico.

Given how badly the Oceania and Asian representatives performed in this month's playoffs, it seems unlikely Fifa will allow these two confederations to be paired together in the next World Cup playoffs. That means we're stuck with trying to qualify through the Americas.

The All Whites were always likely to struggle against Mexico. These playoffs pitted one country with a professional league against another with just one professional team; one country with hundreds of professional footballers against another with 37.

The All Whites will always struggle for depth and an injury to a key player will be keenly felt, as Winston Reid's absence was tonight.

Tonight's result was predictable given the makeshift nature of the team fielded by Ricki Herbert, who gave debuts to two players and lined them up in a 4-4-2 formation he hadn't used for years.

The good news is there are no end of areas where the All Whites can improve. Being better organised at set pieces would be a good start. New Zealand gave up two goals from corners at the Azteca and struggled to contain Mexico again last night from dead ball situations.

Part of that simply comes down to time spent together. There needs to be a greater commitment from New Zealand Football to provide a better build-up campaign and from the offshore players to make themselves available at every opportunity. It remains to be seen whether the former has the cash and the latter the desire.

This was the youngest team New Zealand has fielded in many years. Some may turn out not to be good enough for international level but there were some encouraging displays, none more so than Bill Tuiloma in his first start.

The 18-year-old fullback was wearing Ryan Nelsen's No 6 jersey and some of his play was a little reminiscent of the former skipper. At one point, he made a covering tackle in the middle, won the ball and then pointed Nelsen-style to where Kosta Barbarouses should be playing it.

He called for the ball with confidence, made overlapping runs and had a first-half shot from distance when players in front of him seemed unwilling to have a go.

In charge of the All Whites for the last time, Herbert was afforded generous applause after the final whistle. He oversaw a period in which much of the general sporting public came to care enough to get angry about football in a way they didn't before, even if there remains a level of ignorance about how tough it is to excel in football from those who follow non-global sports such as rugby.

Contrast that with the lack of an outcry after the 4-2 loss to Vanuatu which effectively ended New Zealand's 2006 World Cup campaign.

From a personal standpoint, Herbert's biggest mistake was perhaps not signing a lucrative contract with a Middle Eastern club when his stock was at its highest after the 2010 World Cup. But Herbert demonstrated the kind of loyalty that has all but disappeared from football by staying with the All Whites and Phoenix. One wonders if the leading offshore All Whites will show similar loyalty to their national team in the next World Cup cycle, especially if New Zealand draws a much tougher qualifying path through South America.

- Herald on Sunday

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