Soccer’s smallest region – Oceania – doesn’t have a guaranteed spot at the World Cup. Instead, the final two qualification matches in the confederation determine who will contest a playoff against a South American team for a place in Russia.
New Zealand and the Solomon Islands meet in a home-and-away playoff on Friday and on Sept. 5. The winner could face a daunting opponent in the inter-continental playoff against the fifth place team from South America, with two-time World Cup winner Argentina currently occupying that spot.
“The time pressures of this week are huge and unique,” New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson said. “We only have our full squad together for two and a half days before kick-off on Friday night so every minute with the team counts. This isn’t an excuse, it’s the opposite – it’s a great opportunity for us.”
The New Zealanders qualified by topping Group A of the continental tournament, with a win and a draw against New Caledonia and two wins over Fiji.
New Zealand lost an inter-continental playoff against Mexico in 2014, missing out on a spot in the World Cup in Brazil after going through the group stage in the 2010 tournament unbeaten.
New Zealand has injury problems as it prepares to host the first leg against the Solomon Islands. Captain Winston Reid, defender Tommy Smith, midfielder Marco Rojas and striker Shane Smeltz are all sidelined.
Smeltz, one of the stars of New Zealand’s World Cup campaign in 2010, has been replaced by Wellington Phoenix forward Alex Rufer, the son of former All Whites midfielder Shane Rufer.
All but two players on the Solomons squad were picked from the domestic competition. The Solomon Islands needed to beat Tahiti and Papua New Guinea to advance.
All 32 World Cup slots will be settled by November, ahead of the tournament draw the following month in Moscow.
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