A trip to the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Korea Republic has now been locked in for New Zealand after Darren Bazeley's side came from behind to earn a 3-1 win over New Caledonia in the semi-finals of the OFC U-20 Championship in Vanuatu this afternoon.
With two places now on offer for Oceania countries at the world's showpiece age-group event, the match effectively acted as somewhat of a final, although Bazeley and his charges will now be keen to go on and complete the job by becoming champions of the confederation.
"We're really pleased, this is what we set out to do and it's been a bit of a long journey to get here," Bazeley said.
"The boys have worked really hard - it's very difficult conditions here and we've come up against good opposition but again today we put in a very solid and professional performance. We were very comfortable throughout, even when we went a goal down."
In the build-up to the match, Bazeley said the players' ability to deal with the pressure of such a high-stakes situation would have a large bearing on the outcome and those stress levels were cranked up a notch when New Caledonia took an unexpected lead in the 19th minute.
It was a goal befitting of the occasion, Cyril Nyipe smashing home a powerful free kick in spectacular fashion to leave the New Caledonians dreaming of Korea Republic. But their jubilation didn't last long at Luganville Soccer City Stadium in Santo and it was one of New Zealand's experienced heads that got the favourites back on track.
Moses Dyer and captain Clayton Lewis were both rested for the previous match - a scoreless draw against Solomon Islands - to avoid potentially picking up another booking and missing today's match.
Bazeley will be glad he made that call as Dyer played a key role in turning the match in New Zealand's favour, showing great skill and strength on 23 minutes to force his way through several challenges and dink a finish past New Caledonia goalkeeper Mickaël Ulile.
All Whites midfielder Dyer was then also responsible for the all-important second goal, which arrived in messy circumstances seven minutes later. A corner caused chaos for New Caledonia and a goalmouth scramble ensued, allowing Dyer to steer home for his double.
In a feisty encounter that saw eight players go into the book, New Zealand took control of proceedings and earned the comfort goal they were seeking in the 71st minute when Reese Cox headed in a corner at the far post.
Bazeley was delighted with the response of his side after the setback of falling behind early on.
"We actually started the game pretty well, had a few chances and were controlling the ball. We got hurt on a set piece which isn't great for us and we need to have a look at that," he said.
"But we then had a good reaction from the players, they know their jobs and what we needed to do and they stuck to that very well. We got back in the game pretty quickly with a great goal from Moses and never looked back from there," he added.
"We probably should have won by a lot more but, credit to the boys, there was a lot of pressure on them and these games are banana skins for us because we're expected to win. It's not easy and we came up against a very competitive New Caledonia team today with some good players. I'm really pleased for the boys, they've done a great job so far and now we've earned one of our goals, which was to qualify for the World Cup. Now we want to go on and win this tournament."
The final of the OFC U-20 Championship will take place on Saturday 17 September at Port Vila Stadium and New Zealand will face either Vanuatu or the Solomon Islands, who play each other in the remaining semi-final this afternoon.