AUCKLAND – The Thai Airways All Whites are as close as they’ve been to a FIFA World Cup in 26 years after a 3-1 away win over New Caledonia wrapped up the Oceania Nations Cup title with two games to spare.
A first international goals from Ben Sigmund and a second-half brace from Shane Smeltz booked the immediate reward of a place in next year’s Confederations Cup – FIFA’s eight-team tournament for continental champions – and a mouth-watering home and away playoff with Asia’s fifth-ranked team in late 2009 for a return to the World Cup for the first time since 1982.
"It’s a fantastic result,” said All Whites coach Ricki Herbert, “as a team we agreed there was only one outcome when we gathered on Tuesday and that was to put [qualification] to bed in this game.”
“History tells you that this is fantastic for New Zealand football.”
“For me, and I know I’m the coach saying this, but it’s the best result in the game in years.”
The All Whites now have the chance to celebrate qualification – and lift the Oceania Nations Cup silverware – in front of home fans with Wednesday night’s return leg at North Harbour Stadium, with a rescheduled match against Fiji to follow on November 19 in Lautoka.
Smeltz’s double – which extended his scoring streak to eight goals in the last five matches, including six in World Cup qualifying – eased any New Zealand nerves after Michael Hmae took just six second half minutes to cancel out Sigmund’s 16th minute opener.
Despite six changes to the starting eleven that ran out against Vanuatu in Wellington last November, New Zealand settled early and it was two of those changes, Ryan Nelsen and Simon Elliott – back in the side after respective four year absences – who combined to set up Sigmund.
The five-cap defender was on hand to poke home at close range after goalkeeper Jean Marc Ounemoa failed to hang on to Nelsen’s back post header from Elliott’s perfectly-flighted delivery.
New Zealand were happy to remain patient in possession and dictate the pace of the first half, fashioning further chances to a new front pairing of Smeltz and Jarrod Smith with Ounemoa peppered by crosses from debutant Allan Pearce and Jeremy Brockie – a late replacement for an injured Leo Bertos.
The best chances to double the lead both came in the in the 32nd minute with Smith powering a header over the bar moments after Smeltz drew a fingertip save from Ounemoa to prevent a 12-yard header from flying into the top corner.
New Caledonia created just two first half chances, the first an opportunistic long-range effort by captain Pierre Wajoka nine minutes before the break that briefly had Glen Moss scrambling to cover his left hand post while a second effort just on halftime was far more straightforward.
New Zealand looked firmly in control despite the narrow one goal lead at halftime but should have been shaken out of any second-half complacency four minutes after the restart, when Luther Wahnyamalla beat Glenn Moss to a through ball and flicked the ball goalward, only for Nelsen to clear the ball of the line as the assistant referee flagged for offside.
But just six minutes later, New Caledonia were level through Michel Hmae who latched on to Marius Mapou’s defence-splitting ball and slid the ball past Glen Moss to the delight of home fans.
Boosted by the goal, the home side shifted gears with New Zealand enduring a tense ten minute spell before Smeltz settled All White nerves and quashed any thought of an upset after 67 minutes by blasting home from inside the six-yard box after Brockie had nodded Smith’s cross into his path.
Smeltz’s second 14 minutes from time was the pick of the night, shrugging of his marker inside the box before unleashing a blistering shot into the roof of the net to wrap up the match and qualification for at least one trip to South Africa in the next two years.
“There’s a bunch of very happy players back there,” Smeltz said.
“We’ve come over to Noumea and achieved exactly what we wanted.”
“I think we’ll relax tonight and look at what we’ve accomplished. There’s a great bunch of boys, and we’ll stick together until this road ends.”
In the group's earlier match, Fiji beat Vanuatu 2-0 in Ba.
Oceania Nations Cup / 2010 FIFA World Cup Qualifying:
Thai Airways All Whites 3 (Ben Sigmund 16, Shane Smeltz 67, 76) New Caledonia 1 (Michel Hmae 55)
September 6, 2008
Stade Numa-Daly Magenta
Thai Airways All Whites: 18-Glen MOSS (GK), 2-David MULLIGAN, 6-Ryan NELSEN (Captain), 5-Ben SIGMUND, 3-Tony LOCHHEAD, 17-Allan PEARCE (15-Jeremy CHRISTIE 55), 4-Simon ELLIOTT, 8-Duncan OUGHTON, 9-Jeremy BROCKIE, 10-Shane SMELTZ, 11-Jarrod SMITH (16-Chris JAMES 90+3).
Substitutes not used: 1-Mark PASTON (GK), 7-Leo BERTOS, 12-Andrew BOYENS, 13-Steven OLD.
Not available: 14-Tim BROWN (Suspended)
Coach: Ricki HERBERT
New Caledonia: 1- Jean Marc OUNEMOA (GK), 4-Jonathan KAKOU (17-Allan HNAUTRA 72), 15-Michel HMAE, 3-Jean-Patrick WAKANUMUNE, 7-Bertrand KAI, 5-Georges WADRENGES, 6-Marius MAPOU, 8-Pierre WAJOKA (Captain), 10-Patrick DIAIKE, 14-Ramon OSAMALI (13-Poulidor TOTO 68), 12-Luther WAHNYAMALLA
Substitutes not used: 18-Michel HNE (RGK), 2-Loic Houlala, 9-Noël KAUDRE, 11-Cedric NONMEU, 16-André SINEDO.
Coach: Didier CHAMBARON
Cautions: Michel HMAE
OFC Nations Cup Standings: