Football: Scrappy All Whites sneak into OFC Nations Cup final

By Kris Shannon

All Whites 1 New Caledonia 0
Chris Wood celebrates his goal at the OFC Nations Cup semifinal. Photo / Supplied
Chris Wood celebrates his goal at the OFC Nations Cup semifinal. Photo / Supplied

First the good news: New Zealand are 90 minutes away from righting the wrongs of four years ago and reaching the Confederations Cup.

That was the end result after tonight's OFC Nations Cup semifinal against New Caledonia, with the All Whites winning 1-0 in Port Moresby to barely clear the hurdle they struck in 2012 and book their ticket for Saturday's final against Papua New Guinea.

And now for the messy details. Facing a side with just two professionals in their ranks, the tournament favourites were left to rely on a goalkeeping howler to avoid a sequel to the Horror in Honiara, a result that would almost have been fitting given some of the horrid football New Zealand played.

Instead, Chris Wood's second-half strike was enough for his side to take another tentative step on the road to Russia 2018. And although that's certainly what's imperative, there comes a point where performances are also important.

In that regard, the All Whites are failing. Anthony Hudson's men have shown few signs of improvement through four games at this tournament, a trend that persisted tonight against New Caledonia.

Their semifinal loss to the same opponents in 2012 seems to have forged a zealous adherence to risk avoidance. Even if the opposition has weakened, the pitch has maintained its integrity and the heat has been less oppressive, the mistakes of four years ago means the All Whites want to be as efficient as possible.

Which means, as they have done all tournament, New Zealand's plan against New Caledonia again leaned on long balls into the box and physical dominance from set pieces, still unable to manufacture many chances through either avenue.

While partially justified, the strategy is let down if the All Whites are second to the ball when it's knocked down, or if the players' first touch deserts them at the vital time. Those aspects, along with an over-run midfield, were key features of a first half that must have been among the worst 45 minutes of football in Hudson's reign.

They might argue they were playing into a strong wind but, if anything, those conditions necessitated for the ball to be played along the floor. New Caledonia, on the other hand, did plenty of that throughout the game, attacking in numbers and threatening the All Whites' defence at regular intervals.

They largely looked the better team and, with a little more accuracy or a little more luck, the minnows should have found their way in front. Instead, fortune went against them as the All Whites grabbed the game's only goal.

From a free kick that should never have been awarded, goalkeeper Jelen Ixoee essentially threw the ball into his own net, making a complete hash of a straightforward take. But, even when handed a lead, New Zealand's approach never settled.

In fact, nothing really changed, as New Caledonia continued to attack with purpose and the All Whites continued to struggle in possession.

An equaliser almost arrived, especially when the dynamic Jean-Philippe Saiko was exposing vulnerabilities while running at the opposition defence. But Stefan Marinovic made a couple of smart saves, the All Whites defence scrambled clear a few promising raids into their box, and another horrorshow was narrowly avoided.

New Zealand 1 (Wood 49)
New Caledonia 0
Halftime: 0-0

- NZ Herald

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