The All Whites have followed up an impressive performance against Ireland by being edged out 1-0 in Lithuania, a stunning strike on the stroke of half-time preventing Danny Hay from recording the first positive result of his reign.
It was just the second outing in charge for Hay, who had made clear before the two-match tour that the outcome of either game was of little relevance, his main focus instead being on laying the foundations of a clear playing style and beginning to foster a strong team culture.
It was an entirely different group of players that looked to continue doing so in Vilnius this morning (NZT), Hay sticking to his pre-determined intention to make eleven changes from the Ireland game. That brought a debut for James McGarry at left-back while Elliot Collier came in up front to make the first start of his international career.
Winston Reid, Chris Wood and Ryan Thomas were all not available after returning to their clubs but there was still plenty of experience with Tommy Smith captaining the side and the likes of Bill Tuiloma, Michael McGlinchey and Marco Rojas also featuring.
Notably, it was the first time in New Zealand’s footballing history that four players whose fathers were also All Whites had taken the field together – McGarry, Alex Rufer, Matt Ridenton and Andre de Jong following in the footsteps of Mike, Shane, Michael and Fred.
Michael Woud also came in to make just his second All Whites appearance and his team mates were indebted to him early on, the young goalkeeper saving at point-blank range as the hosts made a bright start.
With so many changes in personnel and a tight turnaround of travel from the match in Dublin just several days earlier, the All Whites were always likely to need time to grow into the game, especially as they also had to get used to the unfamiliarity of playing on an artificial turf.
It was no surprise then that Lithuania enjoyed the better of the first half, the lively Fedor Černych giving the centre-back pairing of Tuiloma and Smith plenty to contend with while Arvydas Novikovas also posed a threat.
New Zealand did carve out a pair of excellent chances to take the lead themselves though, Andre de Jong directing an early effort over the cross bar before skipper Smith headed a pin-point Rojas cross on target but saw his effort tipped over.
It appeared as if the stalemate would not be broken before the break but the impressive Novikovas then stepped up to change that in stunning fashion, rifling an unstoppable left-footed strike into the top corner of Woud’s goal from distance.
Hay made a double change at half-time as New Zealand looked to get back into the game, Joe Bell and Sarpreet Singh both coming on in midfield with the aim of helping the All Whites play through Lithuania’s well-drilled press.
While Woud remained the busier of the two goalkeepers and pulled off several fine saves, Hay’s substitutions had the desired effect as New Zealand began to find more rhythm with their passing. Rojas was at the heart of their best attacking moments while Singh created space for several attempts at goal but was unable to find the net.
Hay introduced two more newcomers just past the hour as Max Mata and Nando Pijnaker both entered the fray, taking the tour’s tally of debutants to seven.
But Lithuania were able to deal with whatever the All Whites threw at them as they celebrated a first win since March of 2018. Hay can meanwhile reflect on being able to give opportunities to all 24 members of his squad as he looks to assess the talent at his disposal ahead of plotting New Zealand’s path to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
“I thought we came up against a particularly match-hardened team today who were really hungry and desperate to pick up a win,” he said.
“But there were aspects of today’s performance that were positive, I thought Marco Rojas at times really showed his quality and Bill Tuiloma was outstanding as well. The whole idea was to give everybody a really good opportunity and see whether they were a good fit in terms of character and mentality, ability on the pitch and the way we want to play,” he added.
“I think we’ll come out of this with a very clear idea of how to move forward.”