New Caledonia coach Thierry Sardo knows facing Oceania champions New Zealand away from home on Saturday is the toughest possible start to his side’s OFC Stage 3 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ Qualifying campaign but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Group A opener at Auckland’s QBE Stadium sees the two sides resume what has developed into a healthy rivalry in recent years with New Caledonia, more than anyone in the region, showing an ability to trouble the region’s top ranked team.
Most famously, Les Cagous knocked New Zealand out of the 2012 OFC Nations Cup in Honiara and six months later New Zealand needed a winner deep into injury time from Tommy Smith to clinch three valuable World Cup qualifying points in Dunedin. At this year’s OFC Nations Cup a Chris Wood free kick was all that separated the teams.
Sardo knows New Zealand brings out the best in his players.
“For this game the players will be highly motivated,” he said.
“I prefer to play New Zealand first because I know that this game is difficult and the players will give 100 per cent. If we we’re playing another team, New Caledonia players will feel perhaps like they’re better, and have less motivation.
“Playing the best team is going to be good for New Caledonia.”
Sardo has respect for the OFC Nations Cup 2016 champions but with players like Georges Gope-Fenepej and Cesar Zeoula (formerly Cesar Lolohea) back from professional club football in France, he is confident that the team has lifted since the clash at the OFC Nations Cup and will be able to give the All Whites a tough battle.
“To have Georges back is good for the team because Georges is a professional player, playing in France and Cesar Zeoula was also playing in France in League Two.
“Professional players give more experience to the team and also change the mentality of the team to more professional and more competitive.”
The absence of two of New Zealand’s more seasoned professionals, Winston Reid and Rory Fallon, has provided little relief for Sardo, who is fully aware of the depth and talent still remaining in the New Zealand side.
“New Zealand is a big country with many players, more than New Caledonia. When only one or two are missing, in the end they have enough players to still have a very competitive team,” he said.
“I know that New Zealand is the strongest team. I would like at least not to lose both games, otherwise it will be difficult in the next part of the competition.
“I want to try to get at least one good result out of both games. We will try to perform well here and win at least one game.”
In late team news, New Zealand’s Mike McGlinchey has a knee injury and New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson has indicated he won’t play in either the home or away fixture. New Caledonia will be without Paul Roine and Loic Wakanumune who are injured for this leg but will come back into contention in Kone.
Hudson says the team’s approach has been very business-like and similar to the build-up for recent internationals against USA and Mexico.
“We know we’re not just going to turn up and win. This is a game we have to work for,” he said.
“We’re not going to change how we play. The most important thing is we start our World Cup qualifiers with a win, then we go to our next game and we win that.”
New Zealand captain Chris Wood is approaching the match with the same respect.
“We know they’re probably the strongest team in the islands. They’re a very tough side,” he said.
“We’ve played them a number of times and they’ve always given us a tough games. So we need to make sure we’re at our best and putting our influence on the pitch.”
Hudson is not letting results of past matches cloud the team’s strategy either, focusing on utilising the strengths of current team members instead.
“We’re a completely different team to the team we were in the semi-final against New Caledonia last time. We’re a completely different side than we were in Honiara and even when we beat them closely 2-1 [in a World Cup qualifier in Dunedin].
“They [those matches] are part of our history but we don’t associate with them because we’re a completely different team.
“We just need to have a fresh approach and make sure we leave everyone in the stadium proud of this team when 90 minutes is up.”
The match kicks off at 3pm (NZT) before both teams head to Kone, New Caledonia for the return fixture on 15 November at 8pm (local time).
Tahiti currently lead Group B after defeating Solomon Islands 1-0 in Papeete on Monday and they clash again on Sunday in Honiara. Fiji (Group A) and Papua New Guinea (Group B) have byes during this window and join the fray in March.
The winners of each group will play home and away for the right to face the fifth placed South American nation in the intercontinental playoff.
New Zealand vs. New Caledonia
North Harbour Stadium
Auckland, New Zealand
Saturday 12 November
Kick-off: 15h00 (local time)
Referee: Norbert HAUATA (TAH)
Assistant Referee 1: Paul AHUPU (TAH)
Assistant Referee 2: Philippe REVEL (TAH)
Fourth Official: Averii JACQUES (TAH)
Vital Statistics: New Zealand’s last loss in a FIFA World Cup Qualifier in Oceania was against Fiji in 2009, when New Zealand fielded a young team having already qualified for the intercontinental play-off. New Zealand continued through to the 2010 FIFA World Cup by defeating Bahrain over two legs. Note: The 2012 loss to New Caledonia at the OFC Nations Cup was at the semi-final stage and only the group stage of that event was part of 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying.
The Players: Chris Wood has returned to the international side after missing the final of the OFC Nations Cup in June. The attacker will again wear the captain’s armband in the absence of Winston Reid. Wood was the only goal scorer in New Zealand and New Caledonia’s last clash, securing New Zealand’s place in the OFC Nation’s Cup final with a goal in the 49th minute. Without the skipper in the final against Papua New Guinea, New Zealand was unable to score for 120 minutes.
Coach Quote: “We’ve not approached this game any differently than we’ve approached any other game. We’ve prepared for this the same as we’ve prepared for USA, Mexico the final of the OFC Nations Cup, everything. We take this team seriously. We’ve prepared professionally. The players have had a great attitude all week. The coaching staff have prepared exactly the same way. It’s just business as usual.”
New Zealand: 1. Stefan MARINOVIC (GK), 2. Henry CAMERON, 3. Deklan WYNNE, 4. Themi TZIMOPOULOS, 5. Michael BOXALL, 6. Bill TUILOMA, 7. Kosta BARBAROUSES, 8. Michael MCGLINCHEY, 9. Chris WOOD (C), 11. Marco ROJAS, 12. Glen MOSS (GK), 13. Monty PATTERSON, 14. Ryan THOMAS, 15. Clayton LEWIS, 16. Louis FENTON, 17. Luke ADAMS, 18. Kip COLVEY, 19. Moses DYER, 20. Te Atawhai HUDSON-WIHONGI, 21. Liam GRAHAM, 22. Andrew DURANTE, 23. Tamati WILLIAMS (GK).
Coach: Anthony HUDSON (ENG)
Vital Statistics: New Caledonia has suffered three losses in their four clashes against New Zealand over the past eight years, but managed to come out on top in the 2012 OFC Nations Cup semi-final with a 2-0 win and were unlucky not to equalise in New Zealand’s 1-0 win at the 2016 OFC Nations Cup semi-final.
The Players: Georges Gope-Fenepej makes his return to international football after missing out on the OFC Nations Cup 2016 due to club commitments. The Amiens attacker sealed a 2-0 win for New Caledonia in the OFC Nations Cup 2012 semi-final against New Zealand, scoring in injury time after Bertrand Kai’s 60 minute goal gave New Caledonia the lead.
Coach Quote: “I know New Zealand well now. They have a very well organised team. We played New Zealand in PNG but also I watched the two games in the US, and I understand very well how they play and now I’m trying to organise our team to try to challenge that. We will make a game plan and make sure we cause some trouble.”
New Caledonia: 1. Thomas SCHMIDT (GK), 2. Loic WAKANUMUNE, 3. Jean-Brice WADRIAKO, 4. Pierre KAUMA, 5. Yoann MERCIER 6. Cedric SANSOT, 7. Joel WAKANUMUNE, 8. Emile BEARUNE, 9. Brice DAHITE, 10. Cesar ZEOULA, 11. Bertrand KAI, 12. Richard SELE, 13. Roy KAYARA, 14. Jacky MEINDU, 15. Joseph ATHALE, 16. Morgan MATHELON, 17. Paul ROINE, 18. Georges GOPE-FENEPEJ, 19. Jorys MENE, 20. Mickael ULILE (GK).
Coach: Thierry SARDO (NCL)