Japan 2 All Whites 1
The All Whites fell minutes short of a morale-boosting draw against Japan overnight, losing 2-1 in Nagoya.
After the hosts opened the scoring from the penalty spot early in the second half, New Zealand equalised with a 57th-minute Chris Wood header and looked like holding on until conceding an 87th-minute goal from close range.
The match was a dress rehearsal for New Zealand's World Cup playoff against the fifth-best South American side in five weeks. There were positives but also areas where improvement is needed to have any hope of reaching next year's finals in Russia.
Ranked 40th in the world, Japan have long been one of Asia's top teams and were among the first countries to qualify for Russia, their sixth successive finals.
But for New Zealand, ranked 113th, their as-yet unknown South American opponents will represent a step up in class. The candidates for next month's playoffs are Argentina (ranked 4th), Chile (9), Colombia (10), Peru (12) and Paraguay (39).
Japan deserved the win on the balance of play but if faced with a similar scenario against the South Americans, an inability to close out the games will result in elimination for the All Whites.
New Zealand again looked vulnerable on the flanks, were ragged late in the game as Japan pressed for a winner, were surprisingly caught out with long balls over the top in the first half, and also need to improve their crossing and set-piece delivery.
But on the plus side, coach Anthony Hudson can be happy his side enjoyed lengthy spells of possession and territory through the middle half of the game against technically capable opponents.
The All Whites started tentatively, sitting deep and almost inviting Japan to attack. The hosts dominated possession and territory in the opening quarter but spurned several scoring opportunities. The best fell to Shinji Kagawa in the eighth minute, with the former Manchester United midfielder now at Dortmund putting his shot from near the penalty spot against the outside of the post.
New Zealand grew into the game, improving as the half progressed, although creating just one chance of note, Wood blazing over the crossbar after running on to a curled pass over the top from Kosta Barbarouses.
Japan opened the scoring three minutes into the second half. Yuya Osako converted a penalty awarded for a shot driven against the hand of Andrew Durante, who continued to protest the decision on the way back to the restart until he was booked.
New Zealand's response was heartening, dominating territory and threatening with a series of Michael Boxall long throws from the left. That period of pressure culminated in the equaliser, with Marco Rojas crossing from the right for Wood to head in at the far post.
The goal was the Burnley striker's 24th for the All Whites, moving him to second equal with Shane Smeltz on New Zealand's all-time scorers' list, behind only Vaughan Coveny's 28.
Japan finished strongly and took the lead when a cross was headed back into the six-yard box and Shu Karata stooped to nod in the winner. The All Whites appealed for a penalty for hand ball a couple of minutes later but were otherwise unable to threaten a second equaliser.
Attention now turns to the final round of South American qualifiers on Wednesday, when New Zealand will finally learn the identity of their playoff opponents.