Oh Mirko, what have you gone and started. The raised arm, the slide to the corner flag....old hat. Your 'in the know' up and coming types would rather get noted for their tackle. Fernando Battaglia reports on a familiar face for Barnsley and Baggies fans.
Top-level international football in New Zealand is rare. Watching two World Cup qualifiers face off in a match here is rarer still. Two such matches in a week are unheard of.
Given that, the two friendlies played during the past FIFA international window (NZ vs. Honduras and NZ vs. Paraguay) can only be seen as positive and a sign of progress. That’s a good thing, because there was hardly anything positive about the results of those matches.
The first match, Saturday against Honduras, should’ve been a win for New Zealand, if not for a 90th minute penalty miss by the usually on-target forward Shane Smeltz. Smeltz not only hit the woodwork with the spot kick, he also shanked the rebound over the bar despite having a completely open goal in front of him. The result was 1-1, with goals from Barnsley boy Chris Wood (NZ) and Walter Martínez.
The second match was even more disappointing from a kiwi fan’s point of view. Missing Ryan Nelsen and Smeltz due to minor injuries, the All Whites were dominated by the classy Paraguayans, who had come from Sydney where they lost to Australia 1-0. Paraguay set up numerous chances with some quick passing, slicing up the New Zealand defence with ease. The second goal, a lovely chip over goalkeeper Mark Paston by Osvaldo Martínez highlighted the gap in talent and style between the two sides. Paraguay drew their players back in the second half, content to defend and counterattack, as the All Whites tried, repeatedly, to generate clear chances and could not manage it.
It was a sobering message for the All Whites and their fans this weekend: don’t get excited and keep your pants on.
One goal and no wins in two matches, even friendlies, are a very poor return. Unfortunately, there were other lowlights to the week. Even that solitary goal was stained (no pun intended) by the Wood’s celebratory antics. The 18-year-old forward (on loan at Barnsley from West Bromwich Albion this year) run to the left sideline in celebration after scoring near the end of the first half from a header. He then pulled his shorts down revealing the personalised underwear that his girlfriend had given him. Written on it was his nickname, “woodzzy”. A yellow card swiftly followed though most people had to wait until after the match to find out what was written on the teenagers drawers. As SKY Sport commentator Andrew Dewhurst justifiably sentenced; “It’s a clear sign of his inexperience. If you’re going to do that, you should find the cameras.”
Other lowlights: young defender Winston Reid, whose playing time at West Ham United has been severely curtailed since some early season appearances was sent off at the end of the Paraguay match for a senseless, studs-up challenge on Federico Santander. Ben Sigmund, coming on to start in place of Ryan Nelsen, brought down Edgar Martínez in the box to gift Paraguay their first goal on a Nelson Haedo Valdéz penalty. It was, apparently a good week for anyone named Martínez if you were playing New Zealand. And the penalty that led to the Smeltz miss was the definition of “soft penalty” after a Honduran defender was called for holding Winston Reid in the box during a corner kick, a dubious decision by New Zealand referee (yes, he was a local) Peter O’Leary.
Most distressing was New Zealand’s inability to divert from their basic, straightforward offensive philosophy. Pound the ball into the opponents’ box looking for somebody to either head it towards goal or back in for someone else to tap in.
Against Honduras, the kiwis size and physicality brought about some results, leading to a goal and some additional chances. Against a mature, physical and skilled team like Paraguay, it was a dud from the start.
More appalling was the All White’s completely lack of a plan B and it made their reliance on Ryan Nelsen even more evident. Winston Reid was given the chance to lead the three-man back line but despite his physical skills and talent could not organise them like the veteran Blackburn defender. And Sigmund and defender Ivan Vicelich showed that, despite being two of the grittiest and bravest players New Zealand have, their speed and agility are not international-level.
It was a very different match against Paraguay than their match against the same opponent in the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, but that’s not really a surprise. In that match, all Paraguay needed was a draw to win the group and never concerned themselves with sending many men forward. In this match, fullbacks Claudio Morel Rodríguez and Carlos Bonnet owned the sidelines, moving forward with impunity and still managing to cover Leo Bertos and Jeremy Brockie when the All Whites were in possession. And Enrique Vera linked up with Valdez to give Paraguay access via the middle of the pitch as well. Attacks were coming from all sides and only a couple of Paston saves, and some bad finishing from the Paraguayans, kept the scoreline respectable.
The team was primarily the same squad as the one that played in South Africa, with Andy Boyens, Aaron Clapham and Michael McGlinchey, among others, making a few cameos. Chris Wood was, despite his wardrobe malfunction, probably the best player for them this weekend. At least one or two of these players will have to step up over the next two years to ensure qualification to Brazil in 2014.
It was nice to see some top-level international competition down here, now the All Whites need to focus on producing that kind of performance level on their own. The fans certainly seem to be in form, more than 35,000 showed up in total to watch both matches, in Auckland and Wellington. Let’s hope that trend continues despite this week’s results. Underwear shops of Barnsely be warned.
If you would like to read more from Fernando, please visit his blog.