A strong second-half showing has not been enough to prevent the All Whites falling to a narrow 1-0 defeat to Northern Ireland in Belfast but there were plenty of promising signs for the upcoming FIFA Confederations Cup campaign as Anthony Hudson’s men fought back well from going behind early.
Hudson opted for his preferred 3-5-2 formation against the World No 26 at Windsor Park with skipper Chris Wood and Marco Rojas up front but New Zealand were punished before they could settle into the match – to the delight of the 16,815 fans.
Northern Ireland took the lead within the opening six minutes when Liam Boyce cut onto his left inside the box and hit a low shot past All Whites goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic. It was a fine solo effort from Boyce whose footwork eluded the All Whites defence and allowed the Ross County striker to score his first international goal in just his second start.
Three minutes later, the hosts could have doubled their advantage. Marinovic, who only arrived into camp from Germany the day before the game, made a good save low to his left from Josh Magennis after superb build-up work from the hosts with Boyce threading a well-placed ball into the box.
After that frenetic start, both teams settled into their rhythm. Around the 25-minute mark the All Whites, who are getting ready for the Confederations Cup in just over a fortnight, warmed into their work and enjoyed one of their best periods of the game. Clayton Lewis delivered a dangerous swinging cross from the right and Rojas produced some fine skill down the touchline on the opposite flank but on both occasions the final touch was missing.
Against the run of play, Northern Ireland nearly created another chance through that man Boyce again but Michael Boxall showed all of his experience and guise with a perfectly-timed challenge to stamp out the danger.
The contest had plenty of intensity and physicality. Tommy Smith copped a stray arm to the face and Tom Doyle was on the wrong end of a careless challenge as both teams didn’t hold back.
The visitors held possession well for long periods but Northern Ireland always looked dangerous on the break. They nearly made it 2-0 just before half-time when Magennis appeared to have fouled Smith but it was waved away. He then bore down on the New Zealand goal but Marinovic was on hand to make a fine save at his near post to keep the margin at 1-0 heading into the sheds.
Marinovic, who played a leading role in getting the All Whites to the Confederations Cup with his performance in the penalty shoot-out to win the OFC Nations Cup final, was busy throughout and responded with a fine performance in goal.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill made three changes at the break, while Hudson brought on Bill Tuiloma in place of Lewis and the Olympique de Marseille holding midfielder added some real presence in the middle of the park, as well as providing an attacking threat through his trademark long throws.
Whatever Hudson said at half time seemed to have the desired effect as New Zealand had two chances within the opening moments of the second spell to level the score. Firstly, captain Wood found Ryan Thomas on the edge of the area in the All Whites’ best attacking move so far but the midfielder’s effort was blocked. Later in the same sequence of play, the ball broke to left wing-back Doyle, who hit a thunderous strike across the face of Michael McGovern’s goal.
It was a warning shot to the hosts that the All Whites weren’t going to lie down. Northern Ireland came straight back though and Magennis sent a good ball into the box for Kyle Lafferty, who prodded just wide of the target.
Two of the All Whites’ senior men, Michael McGlinchey and Wood, came even more into the action as New Zealand looked the stronger of the two sides in the final 20 minutes. Tuiloma’s long throws were giving the Northern Ireland defence plenty to deal with and Wood nearly had a chance down the left but Northern Ireland skipper Jonny Evans defended well.
Hudson made two further attacking changes with Kosta Barbarouses and Monty Patterson both coming on for Kip Colvey and Rojas respectively, while Deklan Wynne later entered the fray in a straight swap for Doyle.
Barbarouses nearly made an immediate impact as the All Whites looked like they would level in the 71st minute. The Wellington Phoenix man was put into space in the box from a Smith ball and hit a low curling shot that agonisingly struck the far post and bounced away. It was the defining moment of the match and one where New Zealand were unlucky not to be back on level terms.
They went on to come home strongly though and will take plenty of confidence from a performance that suggests they are far more capable than their new world ranking of 95th would indicate.
Northern Ireland 1 (Liam Boyce 6’)
New Zealand 0
HT: 1-0 New Zealand: 1. Stefan Marinovic (GK), 5. Michael Boxall, 8. Michael McGlinchey, 9. Chris Wood (c), 11. Marco Rojas (13. Monty Patterson 62’), 14. Ryan Thomas (10. Shane Smeltz 79’), 15. Clayton Lewis (6. Bill Tuiloma 46’), 17. Tom Doyle (3. Deklan Wynne 70’), 18. Kip Colvey (7. Kosta Barbarouses 62’), 20. Tommy Smith, 22. Andrew Durante (yellow card 87’)
Substitutes not used: 2. Sam Brotherton, 4. Themi Tzimopoulos, 12. Glen Moss (GK), 16. Dane Ingham, 19. Alex Rufer, 21. Storm Roux, 23. Tamati Williams (GK)