The All Whites returned to action in style with a 2-1 win over Curacao on Sunday [NZ time], but had to work hard to close the game.
Goals from Bill Tuiloma and Chris Wood gave them a 2-0 halftime lead in their first outing in nearly 700 days, at the Bahrain National Stadium in Manama.
But after the Caribbean nation halved the deficit with 20 minutes to go, capitalizing on a mistake by right-hander Niko Kirwan, they had to make a defensive change in a 32 degree Celsius heat.
Stefan Marinovic had to make a crucial save after the All Whites were caught napping as a quick free kick was fired, but they held on to secure a rare victory outside of Oceania.
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* All Whites v Curaçao, a meeting of two of the most eclectic teams in world football
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Speaking from the stadium car park via Zoom, coach Danny Hay said it was a “fantastic” result but added: “It’s actually quite nice that we are a bit disappointed.
“We felt like we should have killed the game much earlier in the second half.
“But there will be good lessons for the young players as we had to work hard to get the result in the end.”
Tuiloma started center-back alongside Nando Pijnaker, although one of them was on the verge of missing Michael Boxall, who was ill and was only fit to make an appearance on the bench towards the end.
His free kick just outside the left area in the ninth minute resulted in a deflection of the Curacao wall and left goalkeeper Tyrick Bodak on the wrong foot.
The All Whites produced some fine passages of bonding play, especially in the first half, with Sarpreet Singh in his diamond-tipped element in midfield and teens Matt Garbett and Marko Stamenic impressing on either side. of him in his early days.
Their pressing was also in the foreground against a Curacao side that Hay described as “unstructured” and the source of several good chances as they appeared to be the most dangerous team during the first hour.
Wood took one in the 33rd minute to double his lead, finishing with his left foot after Stamenic won the ball high up the field on the left, then released Callum, McCowatt, who crossed his first touch.
They missed opportunities to extend their lead on either side of half-time, especially when McCowatt, Singh and Wood combined to take Bodak off his line and leave the net empty, but couldn’t muster a shot and had to send him back to Kirwan, who shot him.
Curacao’s goal came in the 72nd minute, after Kirwan mis-synchronized a defensive header in the middle of the box and the ball fell on Jarchinio Antonia, who had been a threat on the wing, passing from left to right at halftime.
His cross selected Rangelo Janga’s towering figure at the back post and the forward fired his shot past Marinovic to set up a tense finish.
The All Whites goalkeeper had previously been called upon to fend off Antonia in the first half and was vigilant to make a second save when a quick free kick freed Leandro Bacuna on the right.
Kelvin Kalua became the fourth debutant when he replaced Kirwan, while Tommy Smith joined the fray to bolster the defense, and Boxall was needed when Tuiloma fell with a hip flexor injury which luckily didn’t appear to be. Too bad.
The victory over Curaçao, ranked 79th in the world by Fifa, was only the ninth that the 121st-ranked All Whites have succeeded against a team outside of Oceania in the past 15 years.
They will now have a short delay before ending the October international window with a game against Bahrain [kickoff 5am Wednesday NZ time], where they will not have the services of Singh, who is released at his German club, Jahn Regensburg.
All whites 2 (Bill Tuiloma 9 ‘, Chris Wood 33’) Curacao 1 (Rangelo Janga 72 ‘). HT: 2-0