Given that their best player is a bruising centre half from Blackburn Rovers, New Zealand will be under no illusions about the size of the task ahead at their second-ever World Cup Finals appearance.
Ryan Nelson is a solid defender and fine leader, but it’s going to take more than a few hard-hitting tackles to repel Group F rivals Paraguay, Slovakia and, of course, Italy.
Plymouth’s Rory Fallon and Shane Smeltz of Gold Coast United will lead the line, while Middlesbrough’s Chris Killen and Motherwell’s Michael McGlinchey are also likely to feature in midfield. So before questioning just how such a side will cope against more illustrious performers, it’s worth looking at just how they got there.
Sadly for those looking for positives, it doesn’t offer much hope. While Paraguay played 18 games in South American qualifying and Italy and Slovakia contested ten in Europe, New Zealand’s Oceania campaign involved only six games, as they topped their group of just four teams.
That’s home and away against New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu, to be precise, before a two-legged play-off victory over Bahrain sealed their spot in South Africa. It certainly doesn’t seem to have been the most taxing of routes.
So while their distinct absence of recognised international class puts them at an immediate disadvantage, their lack of big-match preparation might hurt them just as much. They’ve played only once since qualifying, a 2-0 home loss against Mexico, and their forthcoming games against Serbia, Slovenia, Chile and old muckers Australia will certainly offer a clear indication as to whether Ricki Herbert’s side will be thoroughly embarrassed in South Africa.
For, if their performance at the Confederations Cup last year is any form of indicator, when they were spanked 5-0 by Spain, lost 2-0 to South Africa and only drew 0-0 with Iraq, then that could well be the case.