All Whites edge Bahrain with late winner

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After not playing for almost two years, the All Whites have continued their strong momentum, with another win against a higher-ranked opponent.

The New Zealand side edged Bahrain 1-0 on Wednesday morning, off the back of the 2-1 result against Curacao on Sunday.

Niko Kirwan was the man of the moment, popping up in the 89th minute for the decisive goal.

Kirwan made no mistake to head home from the edge of the six yard area, perfectly picked out by Liberato Cacace after some hesitation in the Bahrain defence.

It was just reward for the All Whites, who had looked the better side throughout, with Bahrain only coming to life in the final half hour.

It's yet another significant result, and another landmark win over non-Oceania opposition.

Bahrain are ranked 91 on the FIFA world rankings (New Zealand are 121) and have enjoyed a huge schedule of games this year.

But they were outpointed by an All Whites team who were better in possession, stronger in defence and somehow – despite the oppressive conditions – showed more endurance.

It was a solid effort. Similar to the game against Curacao, New Zealand were guilty of not converting their chances, especially in the first half.

Either the final pass wasn't accurate enough, or the shot was off target, which failed to reward good build-up play.

Joey Champness was a standout on debut, looking dangerous every time he received the ball in the attacking third. He created some good opportunities with his dribbling prowess, adding a new dimension.

Liberato Cacace was also impressive – with tireless endeavour on the left flank – while Callum McCowatt and Joe Bell never stopped working.

Coach Danny Hay made five changes to the team that beat Curacao 2-1, with Michael Woud, Michael Boxall, Kalvin Kalua , Elijah Just and Champness coming in. It meant a change in formation, reverting to 4-3-3, after the 4-3-1-2 shape against the Caribbean team.

It was the first start for Kalua, who got a few minutes on Sunday, with Boxall replacing the injured Bill Tuiloma (abductor). There was a debut for Champness, who switched allegiances from Australia ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

The New Zealand side wore black armbands, to honour the recent passing of former All White Iain Ormond, who scored nine goals in 23 appearances between 1972-1978, including 10 'A' internationals.

The home side presented an entirely new lineup, with 11 changes from the team that started in their 4-0 victory over Curacao last week. That negated some of their experience advantage, though it was still formidable, as Bahrain had played 11 times since March, including matches against Jordan, Iran and Ukraine.

Just like Sunday, New Zealand enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges. After good probing by McCowatt, Just hit his shot straight at the keeper, with Wood blazing the rebound over the crossbar.

Champness displayed his skills on the ball early, winning a succession of free kicks, as he tormented his marker down the right flank.

Apart from a Nando Pijnaker header, the All Whites couldn't find their range from the dead ball situations, as they were mostly cleared with ease.

But they built into the game well, trying to keep possession, best exhibited by one neat sequence, where they ended up deep in attack after playing out short from a goal kick.
The All Whites were prepared to leave their front trio high – which necessitated more work for the midfielders but was a risk reward scenario.

It almost paid off in the 31st minute, with McCowatt set free after a turnover. There was briefly the glimpse of an empty net – with the keeper out of position – but the FC Helsingør player chose to find a better angle, before eventually screwing his shot across the goal.

Just also had a couple more opportunities – failing to hit the target, but Wood was well covered, often marked by two defenders.

Champness was a constant threat, with his willingness to dribble, and provided a highlight just before halftime, eluding two defenders in the area, before forcing a good save.

Bahrain were mostly well contained, limited to a header and a couple of long range efforts in the first half.

The home side were more effective after the break, coming into the match more, as the All Whites began to be stretched between the lines, though they were mainly restricted to shots from range.

Champness tried an extravagant flick from a McCowatt pass – which was easily smothered by the keeper.

Bahrain were enlivened by a couple of substitutes just after the hour mark, with two chances in quick succession, before Champness almost found the net, after a Wood shot was deflected.

Kirwan (Kalua) and Tommy Smith (Champness) were introduced in the 73rd minute, as Hay switched to a central back three.

Smith went close from a corner in the 88th minute, before Kirwan's late, late moment.
The 26-year-old had stayed high after a corner, and was found by Cacace's pinpoint far post cross, after Wood had won possession on the edge of the penalty area.

Some of the Bahrain team were appealing for a free kick, but the referee waved play on, with Cacace quick to react and Kirwan making no mistake.

Bahrain 0, All Whites 1 (N Kirwan 89'). Halftime: 0-0

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