A header from Winston Reid deep into injury time rescued a draw for New Zealand, earning the nation its first ever World Cup point. This was another 1-1 draw but a much better game than the scoreline suggests. A Slovakia side who eased through qualifying were stodgy and disjointed here and can have few complaints with the result.
Yet another lunchtime game kicked off to a half-empty stadium. New Zealand spent the early part of the game keeping their shape in defence, with their attacking forays intended to win free kicks and corners. Set pieces are one of the side’s strengths – the source of all their goals in the 4-3 loss to Italy at last year’s Confederations Cup – and they went close early on, Middlesbrough’s Chris Killen nodding just over from a well-struck free kick.
The game quickly settled into what is rapidly becoming a template for this world cup, or at least the first round of group stage matches: one technically superior team enjoying the bulk of possession but not doing much with it; another team dogged in defence, looking for opportunities on the break.
Marek Hamsik, the highly-rated Napoli midfielder who’s been linked with Premiership clubs since he was in nappies, was poor, notable only for a slightly horsey face and mohawk that rather gives him the look of Robin Van Persie if you dragged him backwards through a hedge and put him in a bad 1980s music video. The captain’s blushes were spared by Vladimir Weiss, the 20-year-old Manchester City winger and son of the Slovakian coach who was lively throughout, linking well with Stanislav Sestak on the right flank. But, inevitably, Slovakia were too often let down by a poor final ball.
New Zealand grew into the game as the half progressed and might have taken the lead themselves; the best move of the half came as Rory Fallon dinked over the defence for Shane Smeltz to crash into the side netting.
The second half was barely five minutes old when Robert Vittek rose unmarked at the back post to nod home a cross to give Slovakia the lead. New Zealand could have been forgiven for falling apart as Denmark had against the Netherlands the previous day but they responded well. While Slovakia started to look threatening every time they came forward in search of a second, New Zealand dug their heels in, were dogged in defence and began to press for an equaliser.
First a deep cross ran all the way through the box to Smeltz at the far post. He misjudged the bounce of the ball terribly and took one in the face for his troubles. As injury time drew near Smeltz was again the culprit as he nodded Lochhead’s cross just wide.
But deep into the fourth minute of added time Smeltz made amends, whipping in a wonderful cross that centreback Winston Reid rose to nod into the bottom corner. In truth it was the least this spirited New Zealand side deserved, and the result leaves Group F delicately poised, two 1-1 draws putting all four teams level.