New Zealand primed for date with destiny
New Zealand are at full strength and their stadium at full capacity for Saturday's decisive World Cup qualifier against Bahrain.
Other than long-term suspended goalkeeper Glen Moss, All Whites coach Ricki Herbert should have a full squad to choose from for the Asia/Oceania play-off second leg, with the score poised at 0-0 from the first meeting in October in Manama.
Goalkeeper Mark Paston and midfielders Michael McGlinchey and Simon Elliott arrived in Wellington for the team's final preparations with slight injuries, however Herbert said he expected all three to take full part in the team's first training run later on Tuesday.
The team's stars, Blackburn Rovers captain Ryan Nelsen and Gold Coast striker Shane Smeltz, arrived in Wellington late on Monday, with Celtic's Chris Killen the last of Herbert's 18-man squad expected later on Tuesday.
World Cup fever has well and truly struck New Zealand ahead of the match. Westpac Stadium has sold out with capacity increased by 1,000 temporary seats to 35,500, for New Zealand's best shot at appearing at a finals since their one and only appearance at Spain 1982.
Oceania was represented at Germany 2006 by Australia, who overcame Uruguay in a dramatic penalty shoot-out triumph for years ago in Sydney, but Australia's move into the Asian confederation has paved the way for New Zealand's own fairytale. They must win the match to go through, whereas a Bahrain win or score draw would see the Asians advance. A second 0-0 draw would result in extra time and possibly penalties.
Herbert said while there had not been much time to prepare as a squad for the match, the benefits of consistent selection would probably hold the team in good stead.
"We have had the same challenge (of lack of preparation) for the last four years, so it's not new," he told reporters in Wellington. "The continuity of the players we have had, certainly over the last 12 months, will help.
"We haven't got a lot of time but it's a tough, tight group. I think we've spent enough time together on and off the pitch and hopefully we bring it together on Saturday."
Herbert added that despite the external pressure generated from an expectant country building on the squad's shoulders, he was confident they would be able to handle it.
"I think we're in a good space," he said. "I don't sense tension around the group, external from what that tension should be. There needs to be that passion and adrenaline flowing through the body or we haven't got the right players in the squad. But I like what I see. I've always backed this group. There is incredible strength there and Saturday is a great opportunity for the game."
New Zealand captain Ryan Nelsen had a strange request for Saturday's game.
"A good dirty southerly, some beautiful Wellington wind, and a nice bit of sleet," the Blackburn Rovers central defender told reporters on Tuesday when asked how the Gulf side may be unsettled.
After battling "horrendous conditions" during the 0-0 first leg draw in a sweltering Manama last month, Nelsen said he was surprised at Bahrain's preparations for the match which will earn the winner a place at next year's finals in South Africa.
Bahrain are training in Sydney, where the temperatures are approaching 30 degreed Celsius, and arrive in Wellington late on Thursday.
New Zealand's Metservice has forecast cold and wet weather for Wellington when the match kicks off at 8 p.m. (0700 GMT) on Saturday.
"I was very surprised because there's a two-hour difference from Australia and the weather's going to be completely different," he said.
"It has been excitement for the past month actually since the first leg, I couldn't wait to get back on the plane and get back here for this match.
"Trust me if the game was on the moon I wouldn't care one bit. I'd try to get there and be ready for it.
"It is different, no matter what people say, it's not just an ordinary game.
"But when it comes down to it and you're kicking the ball around with your mates and you're 10 years old, and this is the situation you dream about, right here on Saturday.
"I think that's what you have to go down to, to forget about all the pressures and look back at it and say this is why you put in all the hard work."
New Zealand are seeking to qualify for a second World Cup after their sole appearance in 1982, while Bahrain will be attempting to reach the finals for the first time.