Aotearoa at the U20 World Cup: Taking Care of Business vs Honduras

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You cannot say you weren’t forewarned. For the last two years this U20 class has been shaping up to be something special, as players like Sarpreet Singh, Callum McCowatt, and Liberato Cacace have emerged and impressed. But it goes so much deeper than that. The Eastern Suburbs/Ole Academy lads who won the Premiership. A handful of superb players already on the books with pro teams overseas. We’d never had this kind of depth within an age grade team before and lucky old Des Buckingham had in excess of 70 players in consideration for the squad of 21.

Some bloody good players missed out of that 21. Some bloody amazing ones got picked. The hype was clear based on the relative strength of the team except how would they fare on a global stage? Well the hype was stoked some more with a couple positive results in the build-up and an extended camp leading into the tournament really gave us the comfort that this crew believed they could do something extraordinary and would cut no corners along the way.

Still, you never quite know until things kickoff for real. Honduras versus New Zealand, first game of the group stage for both, 4am in Aotearoa for us hardy jokers. Could they step it up when it really mattered? Mate, could they ever. This might have been the most convincing and complete performance a New Zealand team has ever offered at a FIFA tournament. Certainly it’s better than anything at a senior level, since the All Whites and Football Ferns have never won a game at a World Cup (give it a few weeks though and we’ll see).

An own goal got things started before Ben Waine scored a double and Sarpreet Singh and Matt Conroy added goals in the second half for a brilliant 5-0 win. Honduras didn’t even have a shot until they were already 3-0 down. But it was so much more than the scoreline, this team played with confidence and control, they dominated possession in the early stages and created chance after chance as their positive movement and clever passing sliced holes in their opponents’ defence.

They tried to hide their team details from the win over Mexico the other day and fair enough because the team that started here was basically the same, just with Michael Woud in goal who was unavailable that day. Callan Elliot and Libby Cacace as fullbacks with George Stanger and Nando Pijnaker in the middle. Gianni Stensness and Joe Bell in the midfield. Ben Waine, Elijah Just, and Sarpreet Singh supporting Callum McCowatt up front. Obviously you can get into the details of that lineup if you want. Stensness over Zwetsloot or van den Hoven? Dalton Wilkins on the bench? But you can’t argue with a single thing after that game when there was hardly a foot put wrong.

Michael Woud had a couple nervous moments in the first half, to be fair, where he hesitated with the ball at his feet. He’s made some errors in his handful of starts for Willem II but not of that sort, which is odd. Those games it was heavy hands that got him in trouble. But he’s usually very decisive and he’s got a hell of a left foot by the looks of this game, popping sixty yard passes right on the spot… so wouldn’t worry too much about that. Probs just communication issues for the last dude to arrive in camp.

But yeah, the centre backs bring great size and strength and they shut down anything that a very physical Honduras side had to offer. Woud didn’t have a proper save to make. Bell was superb in midfield, dishing the ball around beautifully while bringing enough energy to still make those overlapping runs. Bell’s a bit of an underrated presence here. He hasn’t been making headlines with his performances on kiwi shores like Singh/McCowatt/Cacace/etc. but he’s every bit as good as those dudes in his own way. Currently studying at uni in the States, if he doesn’t get drafted into the MLS then it’ll prove that they just don’t understand the game in that country.

And the front four were excellent. McCowatt is the bloke most poised here, on the verge of an inevitable professional contract, but he sorta did the least in this game. Some magical link up stuff, a couple close ones, and then he was subbed off early in the second half to protect him for the battles to follow. Meanwhile Ben Waine scored a couple goals to hammer home why he’s worth a senior contract with the Welly Nix. Popping up in great areas. Running at the defence a couple times. Lovely stuff.

Then there’s Eli Just, the Assist King. A couple delightful crosses for goals same as Joe Bell for the first one. Clearly there was a plan to get runners wide and stretch the Honduras defence, then square that ball into dangerous places. The fullbacks were getting involved in all that too, same with Bell pushing forward, but it’s the movement of players like Singh and especially McCowatt that makes it so possible. It’ll be funky to see how they maintain that against better teams like the Norway and Uruguay sides they’ll face next. I expect we see a bit more of a pressing approach, which these lads are all capable of. Plus they’ve got pace to attack on the break. Also just to make sure that they’ve got all the tools in their toolbox… Coach Buck’s apparently promised to shout pizza if they score from a set piece. The ol’ Claudio Ranieri move. Dilly ding, dilly dong. No word on if the pizzas would come from Libby Cacace’s dad’s restaurant or not though.

It will get tougher, no doubt about that. We beat Honduras 3-1 at this tournament two years ago so they were always within the capabilities. But, you know, they’re not terrible either. The Myanmar team that NZ beat 5-1 in 2015 was a weak team, to keep it a hundy. This Honduras team isn’t Brazil or France or whatever but they only lost 1-0 to the USA in qualifying. They’re average but they’re not awful and this wasn’t merely a routine win. To slip five past them with chances at a couple more in the process? That’s legit.

Crazy thing now is that we’re almost booked into the round of sixteen already. One win is usually enough to at least get third and with the goal difference boost of this beauty, it’d be hard not to be one of the four (out of six) best third placed finishers. 16 out of 24 teams make the knockouts so that shouldn’t even be the target any more. The target should be winning one of these other two games and getting the most favourable draw they can get for that probable R16 clash with an eye on getting to the quarters and maybe even harbouring a dream or two of emulating the U17 women. This game was only the start. You’d been forewarned, now you’ve surely been convinced. This team’s the real deal.

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