Friday, November 20, 2009

And In a Calmer Moment

OK, some analysis in a calmer moment now. The game was a thrilling rollercoaster of emotion. It wasn't until Bahrain were awarded a penalty early in the second half that I realised how much the crazy hope that we might do it after all had taken hold of me. At that moment it all drained away, and I was making a monumental effort to achieve Zen-like calm, telling myself that at least it had been a great occasion and we'd been competitive. Then Mark Paston saved, and I was leaping all over the place again.

Technically, it wasn't great football, but tightly-contested World Cup ties often aren't. There was about as much hoofing the ball up the field as you'd see in a Six Nations rugby match, but you couldn't fault the commitment or the tension.

There were several outstanding performances from New Zealand players. Goalkeeper Paston was of course everybody's hero for his penalty save and a generally assured performance. Just to catch the final flicked-on header of the game from a long Bahraini free kick without the collective quivering nerves of 35,000 people causing him to drop it was an achievement in itself.

Ryan Nelsen was, as they say, "immense" at the heart of the defense, making numerous intercepts and haranguing his fellow defenders when they wandered out of position. Leo Bertos somehow managed to make Ricki Herbert's structure look reasonable by haring up and down the field to both make attacking thrusts from midfield and also cover off the right side of defense. Chris Killen had a couple of dangerous shots, held up the ball well, and ran all over the place, pressuring the Bahrain defence into mistakes.

Rory Fallon of course scored with a bullet-like header, but looked a bit off the pace in general play. After a quiet first half, Shane Smeltz did some very nice things in the second, but he remains an enigma in front of goal -- by my count he failed to convert at least four reasonable opportunities to score.

Commentary in the Monday papers gave Ricki Herbert the benefit of the doubt: the win showed his tactics had been a gamble that paid off, they said. I'm still not sure we wouldn't have been better off playing a more traditional structure. The defense and the midfield got in each other's way at times, and it was unclear if there was an actual plan in attack. What helped was that the much colder conditions meant New Zealand could chase the ball round, playing an English-style pressing game (Greece 2004 occasionally sprang to mind). They also had a physical advantage, and the Bahrainis were intimidated enough to not even try to fire in first-time balls from corners and free kicks -- something I thought was a surprising concession.

You had to feel a little sorry for Bahrain. They were clearly the more skilful team, and played a lot of neat passess and touches. Whenever they went down the right side they looked extremely dangerous. But after the missed penalty they visibly dropped, and by the end of the game seemed to be panicking. Their defence lost its shape, and had New Zealand been a more ruthless team, they could easily have won 3-0. The Bahrain players' tendency to topple over at the merest hint that someone had touched them won the ire of the crowd. On the other hand, the had the New Zealanders' timing been slightly poorer with some of their challenges -- at least a couple of them two-footed -- we could have been in big trouble.

Apologies for all the posts on football -- there are still a couple more to come, as I make early predictions for next year's World Cup and look at who it would be good for New Zealand to play. Then it will be back to tales from South America and thoughts on development.

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