The prospect of an appearance at Russia 2018 is back on the cards for New Zealand and Solomon Islands this week as the two nations gear up for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ Qualifiers – OFC Stage 3 Finals.
The first leg will kick off on Friday night at QBE Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand with New Zealand hot favourites to do the business on home soil before the return leg in Honiara on 5 September.
All Whites coach Anthony Hudson has a wealth of experience at his disposal which he has needed after losing several high profile players to injury as well as having the debate around fitness levels rearing its head.
Despite some of those issues, Hudson remains confident that the squad has the depth to perform to the standard he expects.
“This has been eating away at me for three years. I’ve wanted to make these decisions two years ago, but we’ve never had the squad. Now we have the squad,” he said of being able to make key line-up choices based on the fitness of players.
“We have to be at our best in every single area. If were not at our best in every single area, we won’t beat the biggest teams in the world, and that’s what we’re working towards.
“Physically we have to be at our best in every position, and tactically, and in every other department. And we’re not far away.”
Wellington Phoenix captain and defensive veteran Andrew Durante stands by Hudson’s stance which he sees as a move in the right direction especially following the FIFA Confederations Cup in June.
“As a whole, we weren’t at the level that we wanted to be at and that we spoke about being at, and there’s been some repercussions from that,” Durante said.
“Everyone knows now that you come into camp, you be fit, you be ready, or you’ll be out the door.”
In World Cup Qualifying past the All Whites have a superior track record over their opponents, winning 6-1 and 2-0 during Stage 3 of the previous qualifying campaign, but New Zealand aren’t giving too much weight to historical results.
“We want to perform really strongly on Friday night, and we want to go there and perform strongly again,” Durante said.
“Not just think we’ve done the job on Friday and go there and sit back and soak up what pressure comes.”
Midfielder Michael McGlinchey knows the Solomon Islands are a side more than capable of creating opportunities for themselves, which means he and his teammates will be weary.
“They’ll try and get in behind, they’ve got a lot of pace, and when we’re attacking we need to be sharp to sort them out, because they’ll be good in transitions.”
Hudson said the aim is to put the final to bed on home soil ahead of the trip to Honiara, but admitted it won’t necessarily be an easy task.
“When you get to finals in these situations it’s not as straightforward, these are always tricky games and I think what we’ll find is the type of game which we played against Fiji, New Caledonia at home.
“They’re going to be really stubborn. I don’t think they’re going to come and attack, Rusreally counter-attack and so irrespective of how big the team is, it’s going to be a really tricky game.”
Having watched the progress of the All Whites since they beat his side 1-0 during the OFC Nations Cup 2016, captain Henry Fa’arodo is looking forward to another opportunity to take on the region’s ‘team to beat’.
As one of the most capped players for Solomon Islands and someone who has experienced most levels of the game in the region, Fa’arodo is confident his side has the ability to do something special.
“Of course we know New Zealand are the favourites and the records show that,” the veteran midfielder said.
“But we have been working hard, we have a new coach Felipe [Vega-Arango Alonso] and we want to do our best and show our country what we are capable of.”
Vega-Arango Alonso is also keen for his side to put their best foot forward.
“They understand the game they are going to have to play,” he said.
“They understand that they play a professional team, they understand that it’s going to be tough.
“They also understand that this is an opportunity to show themselves to other coaches, clubs, and organisations – to show their level of football.”
He also knows that there are great differences between his side and their opponent New Zealand but is hopeful that the work his side has put in will help them match their rival.
“They know who they are playing so the comfort level is none. You can’t be comfortable when you are playing a professional team who haven’t lost a game in the region in quite a while.”
Vega-Arango Alonso will likely be without Auckland City FC attacker Micah Lea’alafa for the match, but he thinks that will create a nice rivalry within the team.
“Of course I was expecting and planning to have him with the team, but I am switching one piece only,” he explained.
“But I am confident that the players see that as an opportunity because everything happens for a reason, and maybe that opens the door to someone to see if he can go next level.
“I think it’s going to be good for us.”