This morning's 1-1 draw with China meant the All Whites lost
only two of their 13 games in 2012, but it is one of those
defeats that will define their year.
Ricki Herbert's side rounded out 2012 with a solid draw with
China in Shanghai to take their record to eight wins, three
draws and two defeats.
On the face of it, it's a good record but nine of those
matches were against island nations and the 2-0 defeat to New
Caledonia in the semifinals of June's Oceania Nations Cup has
hurt not only the All Whites' World Cup plans but also the
coffers of New Zealand Football.
Encouragingly, however, the All Whites seem to have learned
from some of their mistakes in Honiara, and Herbert is more
willing to utilise different formations like the 4-1-4-1 he
employed against China this morning and 4-3-3 away against
He previously stuck almost religiously to the 3-4-3 that got
his side to the 2010 World Cup finals.
Their recent results have also highlighted the fact they are
more comfortable in one-off games or across a campaign rather
than rapid-fire tournaments.
The All Whites played five games in nine days in Honiara in
searing heat and humidity and didn't cope. Contrast that with
their ruthless efficiency in the four World Cup qualifiers
when they have won all four and scored 13 goals and conceded
just one (in the 6-1 defeat of the Solomon Islands).
Add to that a defeat of Honduras (1-0) and draws against El
Salvador (2-2) and China and they have proved they can earn
results against decent opposition on the road.
That will be important if, as expected, they progress to the
high-stakes playoff against the fourth-best side from
Concacaf in 12 months for a place at the 2014 World Cup and
the ability to be fluid is essential.
"We were a little different tonight," Herbert said
afterwards, "a little experimental. We put out a different
shape [against China] to look at that for potential future
It was also a young side, with the average age of the
outfield players 23, but not an inexperienced one even with
Ryan Nelsen absent and Shane Smeltz, Ivan Vicelich and Leo
Bertos starting on the bench.
Most have been exposed to plenty of international football -
Dan Keat was making his first start - and have been in and
around the setup for some time.
In reality, they should have beaten China. They were a little
vulnerable in the early stages, particularly as the hosts got
in behind fullbacks Ben Sigmund and Tony Lochhead, but had
more than enough chances to win.
Both Chris Wood and Ben Sigmund missed golden chances from
close range in the first half, Tim Payne failed to capitalise
on a one-on-one and Tommy Smith nodded over from a free
header late in the match.
They controlled large periods of the match and Marco Rojas
continued his recent good form for Melbourne with a number of
One thing it highlighted, however, was that Vicelich is still
the best option in the holding midfield role. He's 36 and
less mobile than he used to be but reads the game well and
rarely plays a bad match.
Herbert tried Keat in the position against China with limited
success. Teenager Tim Payne is another option - he could also
be turned into a right-back long-term to fill New Zealand's
most troublesome position - but Herbert trusts Vicelich and
will almost certainly opt for him if the All Whites progress
to the intercontinental playoff.
How that goes could help define 2013.