NZ out to settle score

Motivation will not be an issue for the New Zealand team that meets Tahiti today in its second Group B match of the OFC U-20 Championship in Luganville, Vanuatu.

Aside from the ultimate carrot of taking another step towards qualifying for the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup, Darren Bazeley’s side has every reason to unleash its full potential on Tahiti as the French Polynesians once dashed the hopes of a young group of Kiwis in the same shoes.

In 2008, coach Stu Jacobs led a talented squad – which included future All Whites Kosta Barbarouses, Ian Hogg, Adam McGeorge, Greg Draper and Jake Gleeson – to the small Pacific Island nation in a bid to qualify for the following year’s U-20 World Cup in Egypt.

That quest began promisingly with a 3-0 victory over Fiji and then continued to go to script early on in the second game as Barbarouses gave New Zealand a 1-0 lead over the hosts.

But their campaign began coming off the rails when McGeorge was dismissed just before half-time and Tahiti went on to score twice in the second spell, hitting an 89th-minute winner to leave New Zealand’s World Cup hopes hanging by a thread.

With just four teams competing in the tournament, there were no play-off matches and the Kiwis had to settle for third place on points after drawing their last match 2-2 with New Caledonia.

It was an outcome which highlighted the progress made by the Pacific Island countries and that development has since continued at an impressive rate, meaning New Zealand teams now have to be at their best to qualify for a major tournament.

If Bazeley’s current crop were in any doubt about that, they now know for certain after being made to work extremely hard for their 3-0 win over tournament debutants Cook Islands on Saturday.

New Zealand led just 1-0 for much of the contest and were indebted to a pair of Myer Bevan second-half strikes – which completed a hat-trick on international debut for the Nike Academy striker – for giving the scoreline a comfortable look.

Bazeley admitted it was a challenging afternoon for his men but was pleased with the resilience they showed to deal with such a determined opponent in tough conditions and secure the victory.

“We need to be better in some aspects of our game but, overall, we got the win we wanted and were pretty dominant,” he says.

“We would’ve liked to score more goals but we were very comfortable on the day, as we should be.”

After a frustrating 70 minutes that saw New Zealand completely dominate the game but fail to finish off most of their goal-scoring chances, Bazeley made several substitutions and was impressed with the efforts of the trio that came on – Lucas Imrie, Joe Bell and Sean Liddicoat.

“They added a little bit to it after coming on at a time when we needed a bit more tempo and energy. They were positive and did a good job,” he says.

“But, to be fair, most of the players that started did a good job too. Having plenty of depth and using the full squad will be really important because it’s not an easy place to play and that’s going to take its toll.”

The strong performances across the board mean Bazeley now has a welcome selection headache on his hands for tomorrow’s match but one player who will unfortunately not be involved is Nando Pijnaker. The defender had been pencilled in to start against Cook Islands but suffered a medical issue in the early hours of the morning and now faces a race against time to play a part in the tournament.

Those who do earn a starting spot against Tahiti will feel a sense of responsibility to earn some revenge on behalf of their 2008 predecessors against a side that drew their first match 2-2 with the Solomon Islands.

Bazeley was on hand to witness that match and was impressed with what he saw.

“They both look like good teams, Tahiti were winning 2-0 but Solomon Islands had probably actually had more of the play,” he says.

“They were two evenly-matched teams but have quite different styles. Tahiti are very organised and quite orthodox in the way they play. They’re a little bit direct at times whereas Solomon Islands have some very talented players who like to play on the break and are a little bit off the cuff. They’re both going to give us different challenges.”06

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