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Sunday, June 21, 2009
All Whites lay telling marker

Derek Rae

Iraq 0-0 New Zealand

I'm sure I hit a few raw nerves with my criticism of New Zealand's limp performance in Rustenburg against South Africa. To be honest, I wasn't anticipating a massive improvement in the All White's final Confederations Cup group game. But this was much, much better and now they have put down a telling marker ahead of the crucial two-legged play-off against Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, in October and November. Let's give credit where credit is due. Everything about the performance of Ricki Herbert's team against Asian champions Iraq represented a gargantuan leap forward. There was little in the way of ball watching, superior commitment, a higher tempo and an all-round belief. Had they been slightly more proficient in front of goal, New Zealand would be celebrating their first ever win at a FIFA tournament. But a draw from Saturday night's events in Johannesburg is not to be sniffed at, as evidenced by the wild celebrations at full time. The two changes Herbert made at the back greatly enhanced the team's solidity. Aaron Scott and especially Ben Sigmund have helped their own cases for prominent roles in the play-off games. Sigmund has just come back from hip surgery and should be at the peak of his powers when Herbert really needs him four months from now, by which time Ryan Nelsen will also be fit. Scott, an unassuming type of player nevertheless shored up a right hand side which had been found wanting in the chaotic defeats at the hands of Spain and South Africa. Chris Killen is a vastly experienced striker, but one in desperate need of regular action. He hasn't obtained that with Celtic in the SPL, so the big man must do everything in his power to find a club willing to let him play, even if that means dropping down the divisions. Killen got into excellent positions against Iraq, but perhaps understandably, lacked confidence in the finishing department. Shane Smeltz had a similarly disappointing tournament. We expected more from the man who won the Golden Boot in the Hyundai A-League last season. If anything Smeltz and Killen are a bit too similar: both tall, proficient in the air, but lacking a fine touch. New Zealand are crying out for a nimbler, nippier striking partner for either man. Yet Herbert is not spoilt for choice. The manager is right to take positives from what they achieved in Johannesburg. It doesn't change the fact that it will be very hard for New Zealand to beat Bahrain or Saudi Arabia over two legs. But the DVD of this game is one they should all be studying in the next few weeks and months. Well done, New Zealand!

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