Not to dwell on New Zealand's qualifying route for South Africa 2010, but just hours away from their debut in this year's tournament, it seems relevant to reflect on how the All Whites came to the world's premier sporting event, if only to get an idea of their capabilities. Then again, New Zealand's qualifying route may not be the best means by which to assess this, as matches with New Caledonia, Fiji, Vanuatu, and a two-legged playoff with Bahrain is the type of resumé that makes you want to convince your perspective employer that you've never, ever had previous employment. Their 1-0 win over Bahrain looks good until you see the goal was a penalty kick. Won't put that one on my CV.
In the interest of fairness, let's look at Slovakia's qualifying. The Slovaks finished first in their six-team UEFA group which included Slovenia, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Poland and San Marino.
So we see where this is going, but there's only so long we can dwell on the past. Slovakia has to be able to translate this qualifying success into World Cup results, a process that starts with captain Marek Hamsik.
Hamsik has increased his profile amongst the English-language media through his connection with a move to Chelsea, though fans of the Italian Serie A will have already become familiar with the 22-year-old's skills. The attacking midfielder has been Napoli's best player for some time, scoring 30 league goals over three years since moving to Naples. He will lead a midfield that will feature coach's son Vladimir Weiss and Chelsea prospect Miroslav Stoch, who had ten goals from the wing for Dutch champions FC Twente. The average age of those three: 20.7 years.
New Zealand looks to set-up in a new 3-4-3 formation that seems tailored to try and stop the Slovaks. The set-up will feature two wing backs to mark Weiss and Stoch. The central midfielders should play deeper roles to try an hold-off Hamsik, an approach which could be seen as playing seven defenders. Their link-up play should be terrible, but it does seem an approach that could contain the Slovaks. At a minimum, it will force Hamsik and company to maximize their skill and movement in order to move through the Kiwi defense.
With New Zealand's switch from a four to a three-man back, they're putting more responsibility on the shoulders of their best player: Blackburn Rovers' defender Ryan Nelson. Where a four-man back assigns each of the players a zone to protect, a three man back often requires its central figure to do a lot of covering. In the middle of the three-man back, he has more responsibility for reading the play correctly and supporting the defenders at his left and right.
Against a skilled Slovak team whose movement will force Nelson and teammates to continuously make positioning decisions, expect the All Whites to make some mistakes while trying to play their new system. If Slovakia quickly identifies those mistakes and exploits them, this match could be easy for the Slovaks. If, however, they fail to get a read of the match, we could see a scoreless draw.
And then there's also the possibility that the Kiwi's can convert the random set piece and open Tuesday with a surprise. Then again, the Slovaks have Martin Skrtel and Jan Durica to help deal with those.