NZ have a ‘shot’: Nelsen
Ryan Nelsen believes the All Whites have proven they are capable of giving themselves a ‘‘real shot’’ at qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Widely regarded as one of New Zealand’s best footballers, Nelsen famously led New Zealand to an unbeaten record at the 2010 World Cup and spent almost a decade playing in the English Premier League during a 19-year professional career.
Speaking to Sunday Star Times from his home in Washington DC, where he played four years in Major League Soccer before heading to England, Nelsen said he had been hugely impressed by the All Whites in a 2-1 loss to Mexico on Wednesday (Thursday NZ time) at the Confederations Cup.
The Anthony Hudson-coached side were the better team in the first half and led 1-0 at the break before Mexico, 78 places higher in the world rankings, came out firing in the second spell and found the two goals required for victory.
The result meant, after a disappointing 2-0 loss to Russia first-up, the All Whites could not make the semifinals.
But, ahead of their final group game against European champions Portugal today, Nelsen was in no doubt as to what their efforts so far said about their chances of prevailing in a two-leg World Cup playoff tie in November.
‘‘It has shown them if they don’t turn up they’ll get beaten soundly but if they play to their potential they have a really good chance,’’ he said, adding how evident the change in mindset was as the players left the field with ‘‘heads down, absolutely gutted.’’
‘‘Mexico will be better than the fifth-placed South American team. If they perform like they did against Mexico over two legs, they’ve got a real shot at going through.’’
Nelsen was not just full of praise at how close New Zealand had been able to push Mexico, but the circumstances and manner in which they had done it.
He believed had Premier League star and captain Winston Reid been fit and available, the All Whites would not have started their campaign so slowly against Russia and would have claimed at least a draw with Mexico.
Watching the Mexican game, Nelsen said he was a mixture of nerves but also admiration.
‘‘I was on the edge of my seat, trying to kick every ball with them.
‘‘That performance is one of the best I’ve seen from a New Zealand football team on the international stage in terms of creating chances. They had some unbelievable chances against a very, very good team.
‘‘What I liked about it was there was a no-fear attitude, a bit of a strut in their step, some arrogance about them. They didn’t care who the opposition was and they pressured high and hard.
‘‘Mexico are a phenomenally good possession team and for them to cough up the ball that many times was a pleasure to watch.
‘‘But then our ability once we That performance is one of the best I’ve seen from a New Zealand football team. won the ball to create something . . . I never played for New Zealand in an elite competition where we had those types of chances against a top 20 team.’’
They were opportunities created by two main factors, the All Whites’ attitude and who Hudson has at his disposal.
Nelsen said small but fast and skilful players like Ryan Thomas and Marco Rojas were ‘‘lovely to watch’’ and different to the normal New Zealand players.
He felt New Zealand was producing more footballers of a similar mould, a trend that was ‘‘redefining’’ not just the All Whites but the sport in the country.
‘‘Maybe they won’t think of it now but this tournament will set them in really good stead for what’s coming,’’ Nelsen said.