A stoppage-time goal from Tommy Smith has given New Zealand a 2-1 win over New Caledonia, taking them a step closer to the 2014 World Cup.
New Zealand secured Oceania’s spot in a two-legged playoff versus the fourth-placed nation from CONCACAF in the 94th minute when Smith got his head to a loose ball in New Caledonia’s defensive penalty area, looping his header over visiting goalkeeper Rocky Nyikeine for a thrilling finish.
The crowd of 7,138 at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin erupted in delight as the All Whites secured their place in the next stage on the road to Brazil 2014.
New Zealand seemed to have the game under control with a 1-0 lead at half-time but New Caledonia came alive in the second half and a goal after 55 minutes levelled the scores and ensured a tense finish.
The All Whites had beaten New Caledonia 2-0 in Noumea last September in their last meeting and took the lead after nine minutes when Chris Killen rose above the defence and headed into the net from an accurate Leo Bertos corner kick.
New Zealand almost made it two after 25 minutes but Smith’s header from a free-kick by Marco Rojas struck the crossbar, before Jeremy Brockie sent in a cross from the left which landed on top of the net.
Rojas was the next to miss a goal-scoring opportunity, heading over the bar after 37 minutes, while both Killen and Wood almost scored from a goal-line melee but Nyikeine made a good save to again deny the home team.
The All Whites were stunned 11 minutes into the second half when Cesar Lolohea scored a brilliant goal from a cross by Bertrand Kai.
Lolohea brought the cross down on his chest and then slid to the ground as he volleyed the ball into the far bottom corner of the net.
After New Caledonia’s equaliser, New Zealand poured forward time and again, searching for a winner with Wood’s free-kick hitting the crossbar before the 21-year-old striker missed from right in front of goal soon after.
In the closing minutes, Smeltz was left with a bleeding head after he copped a high boot in the goal-mouth and the New Zealanders were furious when referee Strebre Delovski denied them a penalty.
But Smith saved New Zealand’s bacon, securing a crucial three points, which gives the All Whites an unassailable six-point lead at the top of the Oceania World Cup qualifying standings.
New Zealand’s final hurdle to qualify for consecutive World Cups will be a two-legged playoff against the fourth-placed team from CONCACAF, which incorporates nations from North and Central America, as well as the Caribbean.