The All Whites are just one win away from securing their third appearance at a FIFA World Cup finals.
New Zealand beat Solomon Islands 5-0 in the final of the Oceania FIFA World Cup qualifying tournament to earn an intercontinental play-off with Costa Rica in mid-June, with the winner taking the last place at November’s finals in Qatar.
The All Whites oozed confidence from the moment they sang the national anthem till they built an unassailable lead against a Solomon Islands team who were as naive as they were brave.
For the first time at the eight-nation tournament, New Zealand faced a team willing to throw players forward early in the game.
Other sides had tried to frustrate the Kiwis by slowing play and stacking their rearguard.
Of course, this left the Solomon Islands vulnerable at the back and New Zealand started to create chances once the early exchanges were out of the way.
Logan Rogerson got New Zealand’s first on-target shot, forcing a save from goalkeeper Phillip Mango after 20 minutes.
Three minutes later, the All Whites went ahead after Alex Greive and matchday skipper Chris Wood had combined to win a corner.
From the set-piece, defender Bill Tuiloma rose high at the back post to powerfully head the ball off Wood’s shoulder and into the net.
In the 33rd minute, defender Nando Pijnaker came up for a corner and hammered the ball into the net but the referee ruled that Rogerson had obstructed ‘keeper Mango.
By now, the New Zealanders had established their opponents’ inability to defend set-pieces, particularly with crosses that invited Mango to come off his line.
In the 39th minute, wing back Tim Payne crossed from the right, the ‘keeper stood still and Wood headed into the net for his eighth goal in his last eight international appearances.
With a 2-0 lead at half-time, New Zealand were in control and had justified coach Danny Hay’s decision to rotate his squad again in the tournament, protecting Winston Reid and Liberato Cacace from picking up yellow cards that would rule them out of an inter-confederation play-off.
The team had dominated possession with 63% of the ball and had created seven goal attempts, five on target.
As the second spell got underway, Payne combined again with Wood and his header produced an excellent save from Mango.
Joe Bell took the resulting corner, swinging it into the danger area and ‘keeper Mango could only flap at it, deflecting it into his own net.
The Kiwis might have been tempted to sit on a 3-0 lead and make sure of qualification.
Not this crop of players.
They began lining up for shots, for crosses into the box and, significantly, they looked like players enjoying themselves.
Wood found the net with a clinical finish but VAR decided Rogerson had part of his shoulder offside and the effort was voided.
In the 65th minute, Tuilomoa scored his second with another back post header.
He smiled, he signalled to the sky and he danced with joy.
Main photo: Tuiloma after his second goal of the game.
After three headed goals and a goalkeeper’s mistake giving them a 4-0 lead, it almost came as a surprise when New Zealand finished the rout with a more traditional ground shot.
Substitute Andre de Jong set up midfielder Matt Garbett to shoot home from 12 metres as the game entered referee’s time. It was just reward for a player who had clocked more game minutes than any other in the tournament.
The whistle went; the players huddled together and listened to coach Hay once more.
The job was done.
The players will now return to their clubs across the world, looking forward to mid-June when Hay will have the unenviable task of working out who his best starting 11 will be from the squad of 30 who served him so well at the Qatar tournament.
New Zealand were much more accurate with their finishing, getting 12 of the 16 goal attempts on target.
They had possession for 60% of the game.
1 Phillip MANGO (GK), 2 Haddis AENGARI, 3 Ian KALU, 4 Leon KOFANA, 7 Atkin KAUA, 10 Micah LEA’ALAFA (C), 15 Molis Junior GAGAME, 17 Alvin HOU, 18 Prince TAHUNIPUE, 19 Joses NAWO, 20 Raphael LEA’I.
Subs: 12 Harold NAUANIA (GK), 23 Junior PITUA (GK), 6 Don KEANA, 8 Jerry DONGA, 9 Adrian MARA, 11 Gagame FENI, 13 Junior DAVID, 14 Molea TIGI, 16 David SUPA, 21 Ali MEKAWIR, 22 Carlos LIOMASIA. Coach: Felipe VEGA-ARANGO.
20 Stefan MARINOVIC (GK), 3 Francis DE VRIES, 4 Nando PIJNAKER, 5 Tommy SMITH, 6 Bill TUILOMA, 8 Joe BELL, 9 Chris WOOD (C), 10 Marko STAMENIC, 15 Alex GREIVE, 17 Logan ROGERSON, 21 Tim PAYNE.
Subs: 1 Matthew GOULD (GK), 23 Jamie SEARLE (GK), 2 Winston REID, 7 Elijah JUST, 11 Joe CHAMPNESS, 12 Callum McCOWATT, 13 Liberato CACACE, 14 Andre DE JONG, 16 Nikko BOXALL, 18 Cam HOWIESON, 19 Matt GARBETT, 22 Niko KIRWAN. Coach: Danny Hay.
Costa Rica confirmed their fourth placing in the CONCACAF qualifiers a few hours after the New Zealand team’s win, meaning they’ll play the All Whites in a winner-takes-all decider in Qatar on June 14 or 15.
On Saturday, FIFA will draw the pools for November’s World Cup finals. One marble in the draw will represent New Zealand or Costa Rica.
One game to go — can the All Whites add 2022 to football’s iconic 1982 and 2010 markers? We’ll know in 10 weeks.