The New Zealand U-23 squad (aka the Oly-Whites) won the Oceania Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Taupo, roughly two hours from Auckland and have now qualified for the 2012 Olympics in London. In the group stage New Zealand had just 2 matches, against Papua New Guinea and Tonga. In their first match the team was reduced to 10 men in the 54th minute as forward Dakota Lucas was sent off, but through hard work, New Zealand took the lead in the 73rd with a strike from substitute Sean Lovemore, who came on just minutes before. The defense held strong and got the clean-sheet, a trend that would continue through the tournament. Their 2nd and final group match against Tonga saw the hosts need a single point to win the group, but the team did much more than that. New Zealand got 3 goals in the first half and then took it to the Tongan defense in the second half hitting for another 7 to win 10-0
Advancing to the Semifinals where they faced a determined Vanuatu side. Again the Oly-Whites raced out to a three goal lead, however Vanuatu remained undaunted, scoring in the 74th minute and again in the 89th to slice the lead down to one. Fortunately, Neil Emblen’s side was able to hold on for the 3-2 victory. Their opponents in the final would be Fiji, who won the other Semifinal over Papua New Guinea 3-0, with two of those goals coming by way of penalties. This match pose two stingy teams who had each given up 2 goals through the tournament.
In the 18th minute New Zealand found the breakthrough, with Greg Draper who plys his trade in Wales with The New Saints converted a penalty after a Fijian defender handled in the box. Despite going down a goal, Fiji continued to create opportunities, with 2 headers coming off the cross bar just after halftime. The Kiwi defense prevailed and kept their third clean sheet of the tournament.
The Olympic draw is scheduled for April 23 and the Oly-Whites became the 13th team to qualify with the two CONCACAF squads and a final spot given to the winner of a playoff between Senegal and the fourth-place team from Asia. One thing to note is that only 4 teams will be returning to the Olympics from Beijing 4 years ago. Those teams being Brazil, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand. The 16 teams will be placed into 4 groups of 4 teams each with the top 2 teams from each group moving on to the knockout stages.
The Oly-Whites will be hoping to improve upon their results four years ago when they finished fourth in their group with one point. Earning a 1-1 draw against China, but losing to Belgium 1-0, and Brazil 5-0. Considering the possibilities of Attacking players under the age of 23, and the experience of being at the Olympics again, the team has to be confident heading to London.
Now while New Zealand is returning to the Olympics, that doesn’t necessarily make them favorites to bring back a medal. I would say that the teams to watch out for would be Brazil Switzerland, and Spain. Brazil seems to have great talent coming through every year, while Switzerland crop won the U-17 World Cup in 2009 and have many players already playing crucial roles for the full national team, including Granit Xhaka, and Bayern Munich’s recent signing Xherdan Shaqiri. The Spanish are also a talented team, one that defeated the Swiss in last years U-21 European Championships. Another team could be Mexico, who are just one match away from qualifying themselves. If they were to reach it they would likely send much of the team that captured last year’s 2011 U-20 World Cup.
In Other News…
This week we saw Tottenham advance to the FA Cup Semifinals with a 3-1 win over Bolton. All White captain Ryan Nelsen played all 90 minutes and scored the opening goal in the 74th minute. His header outside of the 6 yard box broke the deadlock after Bolton’s keeper Adam Bogdan made many excellent saves to keep the Spurs off of the score sheet. The Spurs next match in the Cup will be held at Wembley against Chelsea.
The link to watching the video highlights of the game is right here: