There is no doubt about it: two games into the Confederations Cup and with seven goals against his country’s name without reply, New Zealand manager Ricki Herbert should be very worried with a decisive World Cup play-off approaching in October.
It is a scary thought that in approximately three months the All Whites will take on either Saudi Arabia or Bahrain – both talented sides, the former an Asian powerhouse – for a place in South Africa next year.
Two games against quality opposition will decide whether New Zealand football will spend another four years in the wilderness. Based on their showing at the Confederations Cup so far, things are not looking bright for Herbert and New Zealand Football president Frank van Hattum.
As much as they were totally outclassed by Spain in their 5-0 defeat on the opening matchday, allowances could be made given their lack of exposure in the recent past to such quality opposition.
However, against an unspectacular South African side, who themselves have not had the luxury of consistent competitive football, the manner of their defeat is particularly concerning.
It was not necessarily that they again showed symptoms of ball watching and disorganisation at the back but rather their inability to register a legitimate shot on goal for the best part of 75 minutes of the match.
Perhaps the lack of attacking endeavour is a ploy by Herbert to prepare his side for October; the strategy might indeed be to put as many man behind the ball as possible over two legs against Asia’s fifth-best side.
Given the return of Blackburn Rovers captain Ryan Nelsen before then, it might just be that defence will be the best form of attack for the Oceanian champions against two sides with enough attacking quality to have worried the best of Asia over the past 18 months.
The most conspicuous problem facing Herbert is that his outfit simply don’t appear to have an alternate plan of attack – or at least, they haven’t yet shown in during this tournament.
It is perplexing, given that they have two talented strikers in the form of Shane Smeltz and Chris Killen, who both have the physical presence and aerial threat to challenge their Asian opponents in a few months time.
Neither of the pair have been utilised effectively in South Africa thus far, and despite an encouraging 4-3 loss to Italy before the tournament began, New Zealand as a unit have barely registered as an attacking threat over 180 minutes of football.
Of course, this shouldn’t be confused as a debate about style, something New Zealand simply don’t have the depth or talent to be concerned about at the present moment.
The entire focus of this competition should be to give the side some much-needed competitive exposure ahead of one of the most important ties in the recent history of New Zealand football; they are within touching distance of a World Cup, a concept previously unthinkable given Australia’s near-total dominance of Oceania in the past.
Yet, it appears as though the opportunity is slipping through their grasp at the most crucial stage and another poor performance against Iraq in their final group game at the weekend – an Asian opponent, significantly – will be the biggest blow yet to Herbert’s preparations ahead of the October match.
Therein remains the positive; that the All Whites have one final opportunity to correct themselves and give hope to a fan base that must be fearing for the worst after two rather embarrassing performances.
The Confederations Cup was never about the Confederations Cup for New Zealand, who must approach their final match as if it were for a place on football’s greatest stage.
Herbert has barely 48 hours to affect a turn-around – his country’s World Cup campaign might just depend upon it.
Chris Paraskevas, Goal.com