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All Whites v Costa Rica: Tension building towards winner takes all match

By Coen Lammers in Doha

The All Whites players and staff are trying to keep things light and relaxed in Qatar in their build-up to the intercontinental play-off against Costa Rica on Wednesday morning (NZT), but there is no denying the temperature is slowly rising to match the eyewatering 48 degrees on the streets of Doha.


The play-off match between the champions of Oceania and the fourth-ranked team in North America, for a final spot at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, is unlike any other game New Zealand teams have played since the infamous do-or-die match against China in 1982 when Wynton Rufer blasted the All Whites to the World Cup in Spain.

New Zealand play-off matches since then have been played over two legs. The pressure of a winner-takes-all game will be unchartered territory for most players with a place in the World Cup and $18m prizemoney depending on one moment of brilliance or one moment of infamy.

Rufer this week arrived in Doha to share his experiences from 1982 with a new breed of All Whites players, many of whom are not much older than the Oceania Player of the Century was during that legendary game in Singapore. He had just turned 20, and seemed unfazed by the occasion before blasting home the decisive second goal to send New Zealand to Spain.

That fearless mentality of young guns like Matt Garbett, Libby Cacace, Joe Bell, Niko Kirwan, Alex Grieve, Nando Pijnaker and Ben Waine may again hold the key for coach Danny Hay against a dyed-in-the-wool Costa Rica squad who have seen it all, including their successful runs in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when they just missed out on reaching the semi-finals.

Several Costa Rica players, like former Arsenal striker Joel Campbell with 116 caps, have played more internationals than most of the New Zealand team combined.

No surprise Hay has positioned his team as the firm underdogs, while the Costa Rica media and thousands of fans in Doha are expecting their veteran team to easily sweep aside the lads from Down Under.

The burden of expectation will no doubt weigh heavily on Los Ticos, so the longer the All Whites can frustrate their opponents, the pressure and frustration may become unbearable.

Costa Rica are a patient team who don’t mind sitting back to pounce on opportunities, mainly through dead-ball situations like corners or free kicks, so the New Zealand goalkeepers spent a considerable part of their training last night dealing with high crosses.

Time and time again in recent years Costa Rica’s opposition appeared to be dominating the match, only to walk off the park empty-handed.

During the preparation Hay has hammered home the threat of those key moments and hopes his team can maintain their concentration for 90, or possibly 120 minutes. He is fortunate to have a solid mix of experience in his own squad, with veterans like Winston Reid and Chris Wood responsible for keeping the younger minds focused on the job.

The current All Whites coach in fact has an abundance of quality that is unrivalled in this country’s footballing history. He has the luxury problem of choice in several key positions with 15-16 players making genuine claims for a spot in the starting XI, and Hay needed the final warm-up match against Oman this week to finalise his decisions.

Cacace, Bell, Garbett and Reid were sitting in the stands, and will be definite starters, alongside Wood. Reid was regularly rubbing his troublesome leg while watching the Oman game, but was back in full training on Sunday and the captain will play through several pain barriers to help his country.

One of the toughest calls for Hay will be which other two centre-backs to play alongside Reid, with Michael Boxall, Pijnaker, Tommy Smith and Bill Tuiloma all making strong claims.

The goalkeeping spot is another decision call for Hay, who started Wellington Phoenix goalkeeper Oli Sail against Peru, but his fatal mistake in that match left the door open for Stefan Marinovic who played a faultless game against Oman.

Hay is also spoilt for choice in midfield and either Marko Stamenic or Clayton Lewis will be bitterly disappointed if they start on the bench. If Hay opts to play the same formation he used in the 1-0 loss to Peru, either Waine or Grieve will miss out on starting with Wood in the frontline. Both performed well in the build-up games and may both be called on as New Zealand chases vital goals.

Many All Whites teams in the past relied on defending like lions in the hope of sneaking a winner from a corner or free kick, but the class of 2022 oozes technical skills, feels confident on the ball and has been able to create opportunities through multiple channels.

Converting those chances has been the major concern in recent games, so New Zealand’s biggest game since beating Bahrain in 2009, is likely to come down to one or two moments in both goalboxes.

All Whites assistant coach Rory Fallon, who scored the decisive header against Bahrain in 2009, will tell you that it only takes a split second to become a sporting legend and launch the All Whites into the promised land of the FIFA World Cup.

The stage is set for another young Kiwi to step into the footsteps of Rufer and Fallon and shoot himself into New Zealand footballing folklore.

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