The All Whites have moved one step closer to their 2022 Fifa World Cup dream, after a tense 1-0 victory over Tahiti on Monday morning in the semi-final of the Oceania qualifying tournament in Qatar.
It was a much tighter contest than many had expected, with New Zealand unable to make the most of their opportunities (16 shots, with eight on target), while the combative Tahitian side defended superbly.
A 70th minute goal from defender Liberato Cacace was the difference, as the Italian based defender buried his chance after latching onto a loose ball in the penalty area.
The All Whites' attack wasn't as polished as previous games, and they were guilty of wasting several good opportunities, as they spent most of the match camped in the Tahitian half.
New Zealand will face the Solomon Islands in Thursday's final (NZT 6:00am), after the Bonitos edged Papua New Guinea 3-2 in the other semifinal.
The game was a sharp introduction to the realities of knockout football for many in the All Whites' group. It had a different feel to the other games played in the past six months and Tahiti were tough, physical and well organised.
The All Whites (111) were ranked almost 50 places higher than Tahiti (159). It was a huge assignment for Tahiti, exacerbated by the fact that the Islanders had only played only once in Group play, due to the Covid issues in the other squads.
New Zealand had won the last seven encounters, though the two teams had not met since 2012. Tahiti were looking for an unlikely upset, their first win since 1995.
Coach Danny Hay named a predictable lineup, with Bill Tuiloma bought in to bolster the backline, with Hay wary of the counterattack threat, while Niko Kirwan was preferred to Tim Payne. Marko Stamenic didn't recover in time from a hamstring strain, with Callum McCowatt used in a free role at the top of a midfield diamond behind Chris Wood.
Tahiti used a low defensive block from the start, with numbers behind the ball. They took a combative approach, picking up two bookings in the first eight minutes with robust challenges.
The All Whites were patient, with the main avenue coming from diagonal balls out of defence, as they tried to wear down their opponents, though the final pass wasn't accurate enough to unlock Tahiti, in the cramped spaces.
They didn't create much in the first 30 minutes but should have gone ahead on the half hour, with an unmarked Matt Garbett heading over the bar from six yards, after being found by a Cacace cross.
Wood was well marshalled, while Joe Bell and McCowatt (two) had first half shots on target, with McCowatt looking the best option inside the area.
But Tahiti were resolute, constantly blocking crosses and getting bodies in the way, while the All Whites couldn't pick up the loose balls and rebounds that fell in the area.
Winston Reid was denied from close range just after halftime – after Tuiloma had directed a header back across goal – before the Portland Timbers defender had his own effort cleared off the line from another corner.
There had been a shift in intensity from the All Whites, who were knocking on the door, with Elijah Just screwing a shot wide, but the goal wouldn't come, as Tahiti were quick to close down spaces.
The breakthrough finally came in the 70th minute, with Libby Cacace finishing emphatically as the ball broke to him in the area. The Empoli defender had started the move – driving towards the penalty box – before latching onto a rebound after his pass was deflected away.
New Zealand were close to extending their advantage soon afterwards, with a Tuiloma header bouncing up over the woodwork.
There weren't too many further opportunities, as the All Whites held onto their advantage, with Tahiti throwing men forward for the first time in the game.
All Whites 1 (Liberato Cacace 70')