If the All Whites were hoping to be underestimated at this year’s World Cup, then perhaps scalping a team 68 places above them in the FIFA world rankings was probably not the right way to go about it. After the heartache of last week’s last-gasp defeat aginst Australia, many were beginning to wonder if New Zealand had the capacity to play world class opposition for a full 90 minutes and beyond.
Those fears were laid to rest last night in what was, as described by Coach Ricki Herbert, one of their best ever win’s against quality opposition:
“… playing a team ranked that high in the world, to beat them here is a terrific result. It’s definitely right up there.”
The game started with Serbia dominating possession but rarely threatening the New Zealand goal. But for the second time in a week it was the All Whites who struck first. Shane Smeltz latching on to Rory Fallon‘s pass before cutting inside to strike the ball past Stojkovic in the Serbian goal.
New Zealand then almost made it two goals in as many minutes, this time Fallon forcing Stojkovic into a smart save with a left footed strike.
Lessons had obviously been learned from last weeks 2-1 defeat against Australia. New Zealand were guilty of becoming complacent in the second half in Melbourne, ultimately throwing away a game that was theirs for the taking. This time they allowed the opposition to enjoy most of the possession without having defending too deep, and they always looked purposeful on the break. Rory Fallon, in particular, proving that he can trouble even the very best of defenders when given the opportunity.
Serbia came out strongly in the second half though, limiting the All Whites to only two half chances. On 57 minutes Fallon headed just over from a corner, before substitute Jeremy Brockie shot just wide of the post after being put through again by Fallon.
But for all of their possession, the White Eagles could not break New Zealand’s defence. Their best chance’s coming from a Marko Pantelic strike, which was blocked by Simon Elliott, and a Nicola Zigic header in the final few minutes.
The Serbian fans, becoming increasingly frustrated at their team being stifled by a solid All Whites back line, began to throw missiles and even tried to invade the pitch. One fan actually made it onto the field before being escorted off by a steward, prompting Serbian defender Namanja Vidic to grab a microphone and appeal for calm from his fans.
The unsavoury end to the game will do little to dampen the mood in a jubilant All White camp, and although there is still work to be done, New Zealand can now walk onto the world stage in South Africa with their heads held high. Goal scorer Shane Smeltz summed up the mood:
“We’re away from home playing against a top nation in Serbia who many think are dark horses for the World Cup so it’s fantastic. We will take some confidence from it but we won’t be getting carried away either.”