New Zealand expects home advantage to play a decisive role in its must-win qualifier against Bahrain on Saturday, helping it to reach the World Cup for the first time in 27 years.
|New Zealand are hoping a heavy pitch will slow down their opponents [AFP]
The magnitude of that advantage has become an issue in the week before the intercontinental playoff as Bahrain media suggested New Zealand might go as far as heavily watering the pitch before Saturday's match to make conditions less favourable to the visitors.
The Gulf News said Bahrain was "90 minutes away from making the dream of playing in next year's finals in South Africa a reality'' and "simply must not lose,'' though it acknowledged New Zealand's home edge.
"The game will be played in gusting winds, on a boggy pitch against a bunch of bruisers who want to stamp their authority on the tie,'' the newspaper said.
"Groundsmen are understood to be planning to further soak the pitch should it look like drying because they believe playing on a heavy surface will prove advantageous to the home side.''
New Zealanders say there's no such plan to soak the ground, although they're looking forward to forecast strong, cold southerly winds and rain, and temperatures around 11 Celsius when the match kicks off at 8 p.m. local time.
Bahrain's decision to base itself in Australia for most of the past week, rather than to acclimatise in New Zealand, has surprised its opponents.
New Zealand captain Ryan Nelsen said he was hoping for "a good, dirty southerly, some beautiful Wellington wind, and a nice bit of sleet'' to chill the Bahrainis.
Training in Sydney's temperatures of around 25C before braving Wellington's colder weather may have been a tactical error, Nelsen said.
He was surprised Bahrain had delayed its arrival in Wellington until late Thursday, leaving it time only for one full training session before kickoff.
"There's a two-hour difference from Australia and the weather's going to be completely different,'' Nelsen said.
Bahrain coach Milan Macala was unconcerned about the disparity in conditions.
"The players do not feel intimidated at all about the new environment or the weather conditions,'' he was quoted as saying. "In fact, it is easier for footballers to play in the cold. They soon warm up.
"Everyone is feeling good about the upcoming game and I believe we have a pretty good chance.''
Bahrain enter the match with a better than even chance of advancing to the finals for the first time, it was knocked out at the same stage ahead of 2006.
The teams drew 0-0 when they met in the first leg in the Bahrain capital of Manama in September.
New Zealand hailed that result as a moral victory but the draw leaves Bahrain at an advantage under the tournament's away goals rule.
Another 0-0 draw will take the Wellington match into extra time and, if the winner is undecided, into a penalty shootout.
New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert is likely to stick with the formation he used for the first leg in Bahrain.
Former Fulham midfielder Simon Elliott is in doubt for the match with a hip injury and will be replaced by Mike McGlinchey, causing the only change to the Kiwi side from the first leg.
Leo Bertos and Tony Lochhead, who played wing back roles in Manama, are likely to be encouraged to push forward on Saturday, though New Zealand is wary of Bahrain's speed on the counterattack.
"Ricki's showing attacking signs going into the game so it's good for us,'' striker Shane Smeltz said.
"We certainly need to do that at home. We obviously want to get more goal scoring opportunities than we did in the last game.''
A crowd of 35,000, the largest for a football match in New Zealand's history, will watch Saturday's match, hoping their team can reach the Cup finals for the first time since 1982.
A small contingent of Bahrain supporters have followed their side to New Zealand.
New Zealand (from): James Bannatyne, Mark Paston, Andrew Boyens , Tony Lochhead, David Mulligan, Ryan Nelsen (captain), Aaron Scott, Ben Sigmund, Ivan Vicelich, Andy Barron, Leo Bertos, Tim Brown, Simon Elliott, Michael McGlinchey, Rory Fallon, Chris Killen, Shane Smeltz, Chris Wood.
Bahrain (from): Hussain Ali Baba, Mohamed Hussain Mohamed, Abbas Ahmed Ali, Abdulla Al Kaabi, Mohammed Ahmed Hubail, A Wahab Ali A Wahab, Hussain Salman Makki, Ahmed Hassan Taleb, Abdulla Ismaeel Omar, Mahmood A Rahman Mohamed, Abdulla Baba Fatadi, Mohammed Ahmed Salmeen, Sayed Mahmood Jalal, Sayed Mohamed Jaafar, Salman Essa, Sayed Mohamed Adnan, Ala'a Ahmed Hubail, Hussain Ali Ahmed, Ismaeel AbdulLatif Ismaeel, Fouzi Mubarak Aaish, Ebarahim Al Mushkhas, Jaycee John Akwani.