All Whites return to action with sights set on the World Cup and questions to be answered

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There are some things All Whites coach Danny Hay knows and some things he doesn’t, as the team sets its sights on a place at next year’s World Cup.

He knows they are about to play their first matches in 692 days, against Curaçao [kickoff Sunday 5am NZ time] and Bahrain [Wednesday 5am NZ time]. More should follow in November. Oceania World Cup qualifying is set to take place in Qatar in March. The top team from Oceania then has to win a home-and-away intercontinental playoff in June to make it back to Qatar for the main event next November.

But he doesn’t know what the format of Oceania World Cup qualifying will be. What that will mean in terms of player availability in Europe and the United States. When Covid-19 border restrictions in Australia and New Zealand will allow him to pick from a full pool of players. And whether he and other New Zealand-based staff will be able to come home for Christmas.

Danny Hay talks with assistant coaches Rory Fallon and Darren Bazeley during All Whites training in Bahrain.

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Danny Hay talks with assistant coaches Rory Fallon and Darren Bazeley during All Whites training in Bahrain.

For now, Hay is focusing on the pair of friendlies against Curaçao, a Caribbean nation home to around 160,000 people, but with strong links to the Netherlands, as a former Dutch colony, and Bahrain, who the All Whites famously beat in 2009, to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, and getting his squad in the best shape possible for the competitive matches that lie ahead, after a long, Covid-enforced layoff.

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But there are knowns and unknowns there as well.

Chris Wood is the All Whites’ leading man, in need of six more goals to become New Zealand’s most prolific male goalscorer. He’s only 21, but Liberato Cacace is the country’s standout left back, while at 22, Joe Bell is already the team’s midfield fulcrum and Sarpreet Singh a key playmaker. With Winston Reid unavailable, Michael Boxall should be Hay’s go-to guy in the centre of defence.

But who joins him? Nando Pijnaker, who was a standout at the Tokyo Olympics, where many of the All Whites played under Hay for the OlyWhites? Bill Tuiloma? Both of them, in a back three, with Hay emphasising flexibility? What of Tommy Smith? Without Ryan Thomas, unavailable for personal reasons, how does the midfield look? Will Thomas be available at all in the near future? Will anyone else be looked at in November?

Answering those questions in the limited time available in international windows, which last for just nine days, will be a challenge. There will be another nine in November, but that could be all there is before qualifiers start and the time for exploring options comes to an end.

Niko Kirwan is expected to make his All Whites debut against Curaçao.

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Niko Kirwan is expected to make his All Whites debut against Curaçao.

Hay compared it to “speed-dating” and said one thing was clear about the current situation: “It is an opportunity for the players that are here now to stake a claim. They literally cannot afford to waste a single training session or a single minute in the games to show us what they are capable of”.

Niko Kirwan is expected to make his debut at right back or right wingback, with Hay singling out his intensity in training for praise. Most of the other choices he has to make for the Curaçao match are set to involve players who could still feature off the bench, or in the second match, but that might not be the case in goal.

Stefan Marinovic, Nik Tzanev, and Michael Woud are all starting for their club sides, but only one can line up between the posts this weekend. Marinovic was the No 1 from 2015 to 2019. Woud was impressive overall at the Olympics, despite a couple of glaring mistakes in the OlyWhites’ loss to Honduras. Tzanev has had a big year establishing himself at AFC Wimbledon, where he has won praise for his ability on the ball, and that might make all the difference.

The importance of good goalkeeping was clear to see when Bahrain and Curaçao played each other on Wednesday, with Bahrain, who are hosting these matches, scoring three times in the final 10 minutes to win 4-0. The first goal came when goalkeeper Zeus de la Paz let the ball roll through his legs, a misfortune suffered by Woud on the eve of the window, while the second came when Curaçao made a hash of things playing out from the back.

While the final scoreline might have looked one-sided, the contest between Bahrain (ranked 91st in the world by Fifa) and Curaçao (ranked 79th) was a fairly even one. Both came close to advancing to the next stage of World Cup qualifying in Asia and Concacaf respectively and the All Whites (ranked 121st) will have their work cut out to get results.

Curaçao are coached by former Dutch international Patrick Kluivert, who once shared the pitch at Barcelona’s storied Camp Nou home with Hay, when the Kiwi made a brief Uefa Champions League appearance for Leeds United in September 2000. Kluivert scored twice for Barcelona in a 4-0 win on that occasion, but Hay, a stoppage-time substitute for Leeds, will be hoping to turn the tables this weekend, two decades on.

All Whites coach Danny Hay (right) speaks to goalkeepers Stefan Marinovic, Michael Woud, and Nik Tzanev during training in Bahrain.

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All Whites coach Danny Hay (right) speaks to goalkeepers Stefan Marinovic, Michael Woud, and Nik Tzanev during training in Bahrain.

“I wish it wasn’t the case, but this is really our start on the road to Qatar 2022,” he said, drawing a line in the ground.

“I wish I was saying that a couple of years ago, but with the hiatus we’ve had, this is really the start of it. We need to have a good long look at a number of players and see who we want to move forward with.

“That’s why these windows are going to be critical, but at the same time, we’ve been very, very open as a group that gone are the days of New Zealand national teams just turning up to have a game and to roll over to whoever the opposition might be.

“We’re here to win football matches now and that’s something that I think is really important for this group, because we know we’ve got the ability and capability of testing any team.”

All Whites – October international window

Squad

Goalkeepers (3): Stefan Marinovic (Hapoel Nof HaGalil/ISR; 25 caps/0 goals), Nik Tzanev (AFC Wimbledon/ENG; 1/0), Michael Woud (Almere City/NED; 2/0)

Defenders (8): Michael Boxall (Minnesota United/USA; 33/0), Nikko Boxall (SJK/FIN; 3/0), Liberato Cacace (Sint-Truiden/BEL; 3/0), Kelvin Kalua (Unattached; 0/0), Niko Kirwan (Padova/ITA; 0/0), Nando Pijnaker (FC Helsingør/DEN; 1/0), Tommy Smith (Colchester United/ENG; 38/2), Bill Tuiloma (Portland Timbers/USA; 26/0)

Midfielders (4): Joe Bell (Viking/NOR; 2/0), Matt Garbett (Torino/ITA; 0/0), Sarpreet Singh (Jahn Regensburg/GER; 6/1), Marko Stamenic (HB Køge/DEN; 0/0)

Forwards (5): Joey Champness (Giresunspor/TUR; 0/0), Andre de Jong (AmaZulu/RSA; 4/1), Elijah Just (FC Helsingør/DEN; 2/0), Callum McCowatt (FC Helsingør/DEN; 1/1), Chris Wood (Burnley/ENG; 57/24)

Fixtures (NZ time)

Sunday, October 10, 5am: v Curaçao; Al Muharraq Stadium, Bahrain

Wednesday, October 13, 5am: at Bahrain; Bahrain National Stadium, Bahrain

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