Australia vs New Zealand, Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland. Australia in their last five encounters with the Kiwis on New Zealand soil had never won a game and lost their most recent such game 2-0. New Zealand sported up to eight survivors of that game, Australia just two.
On paper the Australian players, worth over $10 million, seemed to be certain winners when confronted with the New Zealand squad which would struggle to reach $2 million even with the absent Wynton Rufer. Of course there is more to a match than the worth of the players, more so in a Trans-Tasman encounter. For those unacquainted with the feeling in any game between Australia and New Zealand ask any of us about the underarm bowling incident. Perhaps the words of Kiwi Robbie Ironside are apt here "I don't care about getting to the finals of the World Cup as long as we knock out Australia". The feeling is not entirely unlike Scotland-England, though perhaps not quite so pronounced.
A very dissappointing crowd of 10,952 braved the cold and overcast conditions, among them a Les Wilson. Les Wilson is the Canadian team manager and he has tickets to the return leg in Melbourne on Sunday. Les agreed with Eddie Thompson when they spoke in Toronto at the ill-fated game for Canada's hopes for direct qualification to WC '94. Both men felt that their sides were very similar in development, skill and potential. I digress.
Australia had a distinct lack of time together which showed in an incredible lack of cohesion in the first half. New Zealand had promised a tough encounter and they delivered the goods. They played commited football and there wasn't a hint of dirty play. That said the Swedish referee Bo Karlsson might have been forgiven for producing his piece of cardboard. Australia looked the goods in the opening minutes with Robbie Slater and Frank Farina providing some good play.
However it soon bacame apparent that New Zealand knew exactly what they were doing and making good use of their height used route 1 tactics. Australia fell into the trap of letting themselves be bustled in a tightly packed midfield and tried using the same tactics. Big Mistake! Eddie Thompson was doing a very nice Lucifer impression on the sidelines while his New Zealand counterpart Ian Marshall (also an ex-Scot) seemed quietly pleased. Fortuna Sittard's Fred de Jong, captain Malcolm Dunford and Morwell Falcons Billy Wright all proving to be dangerous at the slightest oppertunity. Socceroo newcomer Mark Bosnich was the beneficiary of some wayward finishing and when called upon was very decisive and confident. About 15 minutes into the game Australia suffered what may be a very serious loss when Malcolm Dunford, being the last man between Farina and the goalie, caught Farina in a heavy but fair challenge. Farina's troublesome ankle could withstand only a few more minutes before he went off to make room for Carl Veart.
At the half time mark it was probably Kiwi winger Mark McGarry who had the best chance. Finding the ball at his feet at the edge of the area with the defence asleep, he chose to shoot rather than advance on the keeper. The shot went wide. Whatever was said by Eddie Thompson at half time seemed to have worked. As for the Kiwis they showed their fighting spirit with their continued commitment.
Australia had now decided to play possession and control the play, looking for openings rather than hoping for them. Zelic proved to be a calming influence at the back and the team seemingly began to gel almost before my eyes. I even saw a back heel pass which should have culminated in Australia's second goal. Ah but the first was what counted. Carl Veart showed all his skill and strength as he rounded two or three defenders and crossed the ball back in front of goal and keeper Clint Gosling. The defenders in their rush to cover Veart had left Graham Arnold open at the far post. Almost tearing a hamstring to get his foot to the ball, he stretched out to put the ball into the net for the 1-0 lead in the process becoming Australias equal fifth highest scorer with 15 goals. The second half was barely 10 minutes old.
Carl Veart however had two further chances to score himself but managed to miss. First he chested the ball to his feet after the back-heel at the far post and with only the keeper obscuring the view he shot wide across goal. Then he was put in the clear by Graham Arnold and rounded the keeper, only to find that by the time he steadied himself for the shot Danny Halligan was present to block his effort. Had he taken his shot a little sooner it may have been different.
New Zealand were further disheartened by the loss of Fred de Jong, arguably their best player, through his second yellow card. His first for a foul and his marching orders after dissent. He will miss the return leg, as will Billy Wright for a second yellow card in this campaign. Malcolm Dunford for New Zealand, and Frank Farina for the Aussies are in doubt with injury. New Zealand are down but not out, it is only a one goal lead Australia are defending and with Wynton Rufer a possibility for the return leg Australia are far from home and hosed.
Final score Australia 1 (G Arnold) - New Zealand 0
A little banter to round things off. The Canada play-offs are being organised today (31 May, My Birthday, 23 pathetic years) by the ASF, NZFA and Canada (early August looks likely) and will be ratified by FIFA tomorrow. The Australia leg (if it eventuates) will take place at the Sydney Football Stadium (ALRIGHT!!- Where do I buy the tickets?) and Eddie Thompson favours this as the first match.