PREVIEW: All Whites ready for first tournament fixture in two years

New Zealand coach Darren Bazeley says retaining the OFC Nations Cup in Vanuatu is his top priority, even with the shadows of the Paris Olympics looming large.

New Zealand kick off their campaign in Group A against Solomon Islands at VFF Freshwater Stadium on Tuesday.

The All Whites last played a competitive tournament match in the FIFA World Cup play-off against Costa Rica two years ago, and Bazeley is looking forward to working with his squad for an extended period.

“We play a lot of games, but they are friendly games, so playing in a tournament with proper competition with something at stake is really important for us, as we as we build towards the World Cup qualifiers,” said Bazeley, who is philosophical about the late withdrawal of New Caledonia.

READ MORE: Civil unrest forces New Caledonia to pull out of OFC Nations Cup tournament >>>>

“We would have liked to have played that game, but it just allows us to do a bit more preparation,” he said.

The young New Zealand squad arrived in Vanuatu without captain Libby Cacace, who is suspended and will not play until the second match against Vanuatu on Friday, while Tommy Smith is returning late after attending the wedding of Chris Wood.

New Zealand will have to overcome their OFC rivals without several senior players, including Sapreet Singh, Joe Bell, Marko Stamenic, Matt Garbett, Michael Boxall, Calum McCowatt and Nando Pijnaker, who are either in mid-season, in pre-season, or trying to secure new clubs.

Main photo: Wellington Phoenix players Alex Rufer, Lukas Kelly-Heald and Alex Paulsen in training with the All Whites. Photo credit: OFC / Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

The New Zealand squad train ahead of their opening game at the OFC Men’s Nations Cup. Photo credit: OFC / Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

With many in the squad under 23, the tournament will be a perfect lead-in to the Olympic games and open the door for new faces.

“While we always try you select the strongest group we can, this gives people an opportunity. Players are here to stake a claim for the Olympics, but also a claim for regular All Whites selection, and that’s a huge opportunity,” Bazeley said.

The Vanuatu and Solomon Island coaches have acknowledged New Zealand was the benchmark for rival OFC nations, but OFC president Lambert Maltock was quick to remind everyone that the gaps are closing.

“In 2012, New Zealand lost to New Caledonia in the semis and in 2016 they only beat PNG after penalties in the final, so anyone can beat anyone here,” said the president during a welcome dinner.

Bazeley’s team are aware of the challenge ahead to retain their OFC Nations title.

“They’re going to come up into a different environment, different climate, different pitches and a different style of player than what they used to.

“We’ve got a lot of professional footballers in the squad, but anybody who has been to the islands to play football or watch football knows it’s a different challenge and not always as easy as what people may think.”

The Solomon Islands face a virtual must-win situation in what is their final group match following the 1-0 defeat by hosts Vanuatu in the opening match of the tournament on Saturday.

READ MORE: OFC Nations Cup tournament opener a ‘grand final’ for All Whites’ opponents >>>>

Acknowledgement

We are grateful for the help of OFC Media in providing the information for this story.

New Zealand squad

Name/caps/club

Kosta Barbarouses (52 caps) Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand
Tyler Bindon (6 caps) Reading FC, England
Liberato Cacace (22 caps) Empoli, Italy
Fin Conchie (0 caps) Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand*
Max Crocombe (6 caps) Burton Albion, England
Alex Greive (11 caps) Dundee United, Scotland
Cam Howieson (16 caps) Auckland FC / Auckland City FC, New Zealand
Eli Just (22 caps) AC Horsens, Denmark
Lukas Kelly-Heald (0 caps) Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand
Max Mata (10 caps) Auckland FC, New Zealand
Ben Old (4 caps) Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand
Alex Paulsen (0 caps) AFC Bournemouth, England
Tim Payne (34 caps) Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand
Jesse Randall (0 caps) Auckland FC / Wellington Olympic AFC, New Zealand*
Alex Rufer (9 caps) Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand
Oli Sail (9 caps) Perth Glory, Australia
Tommy Smith (52 caps) Auckland FC, New Zealand
Finn Surman (1 cap) Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand
Sam Sutton (0 caps) Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand*
Ben Waine (13 caps) Plymouth Argyle, England
Oskar van Hattum (0 caps) Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand*

*Debut call up

New Zealand’s record

The All Whites won the cup when the last tournament was held in 2016.

It was the fifth time New Zealand had taken the OFC title, with previous wins in 1973, 1998, 2002 and 2006.

New Zealand were to host the tournament in 2020 but it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fixtures

Game to be played on Tuesday June 18, 2024

New Zealand v Solomon Islands
VFF Fresh Water Stadium, Port Vila, 4pm (NZT)

Game to be played on Friday June 21, 2024, 2024

New Zealand v Vanuatu
VFF Fresh Water Stadium, Port Vila, 4pm (NZT)

Current standings

More football stories