The All Whites have gone down fighting to Russia in the opening game of the FIFA Confederations Cup in St Petersburg.
The OFC Nations Cup champions fought valiantly in the face of an impressive performance from the home nation but were denied by a 30th-minute own goal and a well-worked move that presented Fedor Smolov with a tap-in in the 69th minute of a free-flowing and entertaining contest.
In a historic occasion, which was Russia’s first appearance in the tournament and the first match for the space-age Krestovsky Stadium, the game opened like a scene from a Hollywood movie.
Russian president Vladimir Putin addressed the crowd in what sounded like a call for battle, sending the fans into raptures before kick-off. That feeling carried into the match with the action starting at a frenetic pace.
Coach Anthony Hudson made two changes from the All Whites side that was defeated 1-0 by Belarus five days ago, Tommy Smith coming into the back three for Themi Tzimopolous and Kosta Barbarouses partnering Chris Wood up front in place of Shane Smeltz.
Regardless of the result, it was a memorable evening for Wood, who joined an illustrious group in making his 50th appearance in an ‘A’ international for New Zealand.
The All Whites had to withstand an absolute onslaught in the first 20 minutes as Russia charged out of the blocks, a start which was met by deafening cries from the 50,251-strong crowd.
Russia nearly earned reward for their electric opening in the seventh minute, defender Viktor Vasin hitting the inside of the post from a diving header but Michael McGlinchey was on hand to clear off the line. Two minutes later, the All Whites cleared from their line again with experienced defender Smith taking care of a Dmitry Poloz effort.
The All Whites had only a few chances down the other end but they did cause Russia some problems. In the 12th minute, a deep free kick from Stefan Marinovic found skipper Chris Wood, who headed across goal for Smith but his deflected effort drifted wide of the back post.
Three minutes later, Dmitry Poloz went one-on-one with Marinovic and went down in the challenge but his appeals for a penalty were waved away. The All Whites had another sight of goal soon after with a free kick in a promising position but Wood smashed it into the Russian wall and the ball went out for a corner.
The Russian pressure was continuing to mount though and they took the lead on the half hour due to the skill and determination of Denis Glushakov. The midfielder dinked his attempt over an advancing Marinovic in the box and two New Zealand defenders, Smith and Michael Boxall, joined him in sliding in on the line. It appeared as if Glushakov had forced the ball home but it was later ruled as an own goal.
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After the break, Ryan Thomas was caught in a challenge and went down but the referee allowed play to go on. With the extra man, Russia created some space and Marinovic made a couple of outstanding saves, first diving to keep out a header and then smothering the follow up.
The goalkeeper, the All Whites best performer on the night, was called into action on several more occasions and continued to come up with the goods. In the 53rd minute, he saved a low shot down to his left from Poloz and was then helped out by the awareness of Thomas, who was on hand to clear the rebound.
Thomas was one of New Zealand’s standouts in the middle of the park, along with the defensive trio of Smith, Boxall and Andrew Durante, who were composed under significant duress from a relentless red wave.
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New Zealand grew into the game and began to enjoy more possession as the crowd whistled and jeered, clearly not comfortable with the home team’s inability to finish their plethora of chances. Alexander Samedov added to that list of attempts on goal when he curled a free kick from the edge of the area narrowly wide of the top corner just after the hour.
Hudson had made his first change moments earlier when he brought Bill Tuiloma on for Kosta Barbarouses as the All Whites tried to get some more parity in the midfield battle.
But Russia put themselves firmly in control when crowd favourite Smolov slotted home a low cross after a flowing move down the right-hand side in the 69th minute. It was a telling blow that rocked New Zealand and all but ended their chances of getting something from the game.
They did go on to enjoy their best moments of the match soon after though, Thomas coming up with the All Whites’ best opportunity in the 77th minute when his sweetly-struck drive from the edge of the area required Russian goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev to pull off a superb save to his left.
Just seconds later, New Zealand nearly got on the scoresheet again, Smith heading the resulting corner from Michael McGlinchey towards goal but Russia somehow managed to scramble the ball off the line.
Two attacking players at opposite ends of their careers were both introduced as Hudson tried to find a way to break down Russia, veteran Shane Smeltz entering the fray for Marco Rojas with 20 minutes remaining while youngster Monty Patterson came on for Kip Colvey late on.
But the All Whites could not spoil the hosts’ party and will travel to Sochi on Monday as they prepare to face World No 17 Mexico in their second game of the tournament.
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Russia 2 (Own goal 30’, Fedor Smolov 69’)
New Zealand 0
Krestovsky Stadium, St Petersburg
New Zealand: 1. Stefan Marinovic (GK), 3. Deklan Wynne, 5. Michael Boxall, 7. Kosta Barbarouses (6. Bill Tuiloma 61’), 8. Michael McGlinchey, 9. Chris Wood (c), 11. Marco Rojas (10. Shane Smeltz 71’), 14. Ryan Thomas, 18. Kip Colvey (13. Monty Patterson 84’), 20. Tommy Smith, 22. Andrew Durante
Substitutes not used: 2. Sam Brotherton, 4. Themi Tzimopoulos, 12. Glen Moss (GK), 15. Clayton Lewis, 16. Dane Ingham, 17. Thomas Doyle, 19. Alex Rufer, 21. Storm Roux, 23. Tamati Williams (GK)
Coach: Anthony Hudson