A clinical performance in a 3-1 win over Honduras at Cheonan Stadium in the Korea Republic has given New Zealand a great chance of progressing to the knockout stages of the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Going into the vital clash, New Zealand had tasted victory at this tournament on only one previous occasion – a 5-1 success over Myanmar on home soil two years ago – but needed to claim a second to put themselves in a good position to go through.
After starting with a scoreless draw against debutants Vietnam and France looming as a very difficult final Group E opponent on Sunday, Darren Bazeley’s side were in need of all three points while Honduras were in the same boat, having been thumped 3-0 by the classy French first up.
With so much at stake, both teams would therefore have been keen to stamp their authority on the game early on but it was the Kiwis who managed to do so, going ahead just seconds after the opening whistle.
Honduras had the kick-off but promptly surrendered possession, allowing Joe Bell to loft a long pass forward and into the path of Myer Bevan. The advancing striker then produced a sublime moment of skill, making light of the rapidly-narrowing angle to fire an unstoppable shot past Honduras goalkeeper Javier Delgado that crashed in off the underside of the crossbar.
It was one of the finest goals a New Zealand player has scored at a major tournament and had an inspirational effect on his team mates, who went on to complete the job in composed style. The only danger with scoring so early was that it allowed Honduras plenty of time to get back into the game but the next goal again went to New Zealand as they took control of proceedings, despite enjoying significantly less possession than their Central American opponents.
Bell, who is based in the United States at the University of Virginia, had a hand in that 23rd-minute second strike as well after sending a well-placed free kick into the box which Hunter Ashworth managed to flick in with his head despite Delgado getting a hand to the effort. The closest Honduras came to getting on the scoresheet in the first half was when Jorge Alvarez jinked his way down the right in the 38th minute and put in a teasing ball but couldn’t quite pick out a team mate.
They did manage to get back into the contest soon after the break though as some uncharacteristically sloppy defending from New Zealand gave danger man Alvarez the chance to smash home from close range after following up a shot that came back off the cross bar. The moments following the goal were among Honduras’ best of the game but New Zealand dealt with the pressure well and were soon able to restore their two-goal advantage.
Noah Billingsley had the ball in the net from a corner but the referee had already pointed to the penalty spot, presenting Bevan with the opportunity to notch a rare World Cup brace in the 56th minute. It was one he did not turn down, coolly slotting his effort low to the left of Delgado for 3-1.
Bevan, who recently signed a professional deal with the Vancouver Whitecaps, was clearly in the mood and could have completed his hat-trick ten minutes later, attempting to lob a rampaging Delgado but putting too much on it as the ball dropped over the cross bar.
New Zealand were not made to pay though as Honduras threw everything at them but were expertly repelled by a strong defensive performance and the safe hands of goalkeeper Michael Woud, who had few saves to make but gathered cleanly whenever called upon.
The result means Bazeley’s men are now second in Group E on four points, which is usually enough to make it past the group stages of this event, especially with the four best third-placed teams also going through to the round of 16.
While there is now less pressure to earn a positive outcome, Bazeley will be looking for another impressive display against leaders France on Sunday to take plenty of confidence into the next phase.
New Zealand 3 (Myer Bevan 1’, pen 56’, Hunter Ashworth 23’)
Honduras 1 (Jorge Alvarez 50’)
New Zealand: 1. Michael Woud (GK) (yellow card 79’), 2. Dane Ingham, 3. Sean Liddicoat, 5. Hunter Ashworth, 6. Joe Bell, 8. Moses Dyer (yellow card 76’), 9. Noah Billingsley (17. Logan Rogerson 66’), 10. Clayton Lewis (c), 13. James McGarry (4. Luke Johnson 82’), 15. Reese Cox (yellow card 44’), 19. Myer Bevan (7. Connor Probert 86’)
Substitutes not used: 11. Henry Cameron, 12. Cameron Brown (GK), 14. Jack-Henry Sinclair, 16. Callum McCowatt, 18. Sarpreet Singh, 20. Lucas Imrie, 21. Conor Tracey (GK)
Coach: Darren Bazeley