A clinical performance from New Zealand’s All Whites, led by captain and hat-trick hero Chris Wood, saw them take a 6-1 advantage over the Solomon Islands in the first leg of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ Qualifiers – OFC Stage 3 Final this evening in Auckland.
Wood put on a performance worthy of the 10,000-plus crowd who turned out to see the recent Burnley signing continue the magic he started at Wembley, when he scored on debut for his new club, finding the net twice before half-time and completing his hat-trick with a perfectly-placed free kick late in the second.
All Whites coach Anthony Hudson said the performance from his side was pleasing.
“I was happy with the score line, disappointed with penalty as I thought we could have avoided that, but overall pleased with the performance,” he said.
“I thought the team passed the ball really well, I thought there were periods where they played really good football and I think with little tweaks I think we could be even more dangerous attacking. I think we let them off the hook a few times tonight.
“But I’m being ultra-critical. I think the boys did well, they were first-class tonight.
“To be honest I won’t be celebrating or satisfied until we get to November and we are seriously in with a shout.”
New Zealand appeared to have the upper hand from the outset with the fully-professional side dominating, while their opponents sat deep with a five-strong backline hoping to soak up some of the pressure.
Gagame Feni looked the biggest threat of the first half for the New Zealanders to deal with but Michael Boxall and his defensive colleagues were able to keep him contained.
It wasn’t the same at the other end of the park however as Wood seemed destined to continue his heroics. Fans didn’t have too long to wait either, with Wood following up a deflected shot from Ryan Thomas and firing the ball past Solomon Islands goalkeeper Philip Mango.
New Zealand continued pressing and were soon rewarded when Nelson Sale slipped as he attempted a clearance allowing Wood to go one-on-one with Mango, chipping the keeper. Another loose ball a short time later was pounced on by Kosta Barbarouses who slotted in nicely to give his side a comfortable buffer going into half-time.
The pressure was unrelenting when the teams returned from the break, Wood coming achingly close with a header which took an impressive save from Mango to deny him.
Solomon Islands appeared to be making a comeback after Benji Totori was taken down in the box. Captain Henry Fa’arodo stepped up, powering the ball past Stefan Marinovic from the spot.
However the home side responded quickly and a delivery from Monty Patterson was well finished by Ryan Thomas in the 55th minute. With ten minutes left in the match New Zealand still had something left in the tank.
A free kick from Michael McGlinchey was lifted over the wall, curling delicately into the top corner in the 80th minute. Almost from exactly the same position, Wood went low with his free kick in additional time to round out his hat-trick and secure his side’s sixth of the evening.
Solomon Islands coach Felipe Vega-Arango Alonso was somewhat resigned to the final result, continuing to stress the point of professionals versus amateurs.
“There’s not much to say, they were much better than us,” he said.
“We’re an amateur team, they are professional. 6-1, it could have been 9-1. I’m not afraid to admit it, because I think Philip Mango made some really good saves.
“The gap between the two teams was easy to see, just as the gap between Oceania teams and European teams is easy to see. It is what it is.”
What Vega-Arango Alonso’s side struggled with was closing down the target-man and captain Wood despite having a specific plan in place to try and contain him.
“The plan was simple; five in the back, man-to-man cover the whole time. It’s the only thing we can do,” he said.
“It’s a guy who plays in the Premier League, and we just didn’t do our job. The 18th minute of the game he got a loose ball in the box and he was alone.
“It’s tough, how do you stop him? It’s like New Zealand and Portugal, how do you stop Christiano Ronaldo? You have a plan and you just try to see it implemented, but it’s still hard.”
It was the first hat-trick by an All White since Wood’s last against the same opposition in Honiara during a 4-3 win in the third place play-off at the 2012 OFC Nations Cup. The three goals this evening also helped the 25-year-old move up the All Whites goal-scoring list to third, overtaking the late Steve Sumner to sit one behind Shane Smeltz with 23.
Wood said the statistics aren’t something he’s looking at at this stage of his career.
“I’m sure when I finish playing they’ll mean a lot more, but for now it’s not about that,” he said.
“My goal, and the team’s goal, is the world cup and we need to take that a step at a time and come Tuesday it’s about doing the right job so we can progress to the next stage.”