Argentina and Lionel Messi hold no fear for New Zealand - Chris Wood
BURNLEY, England -- Chris Wood has told ESPN FC that New Zealand have a good chance of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, even if the All Whites take on Lionel Messi and Argentina in next month's OFC vs. CONMEBOL playoff.
Having coasted to an 8-3 aggregate victory over the Solomon Islands in last month's Oceania playoff, New Zealand are now awaiting the results of the final round of South American qualifiers this week before discovering their opponents in the two-legged inter-confederation decider in November.
The fifth-placed team in South America will take on New Zealand and, with Argentina currently sitting in the fifth position, anything but a victory at home to fourth-placed Peru in Buenos Aires on Thursday will leave the two-time world champions going into a final qualifier away to Ecuador in danger of missing out on the World Cup altogether.
Burnley striker Wood, who has now linked up with the New Zealand squad for Friday's friendly against Japan in Toyota, admits his country face a challenge to qualify for the World Cup. But even if the team sitting 113 in the FIFA World Rankings must overcome Messi and Argentina, Wood insists that New Zealand will go into the tie with hopes of progression.
"It would be a great spectacle for New Zealand as a nation and a football team for Lionel Messi to turn up there and play a game," Wood told ESPN FC. "The event would be massive for New Zealand if that did happen.
"If it does turn out to be Argentina, it is going to be a big challenge, but they are there for a reason and will be in fifth place because they haven't done well enough.
"It would be a nice challenge, but we would have a good chance of progressing because they would not be at their strongest. They will be there because they haven't performed well enough to warrant an automatic spot, so we have to take the positives out of it.
"They are not playing well enough to be a top four nation in their division, so they are going to have weaknesses and have problems. And I am sure most of them won't want to travel all the way to New Zealand for a Friday or Saturday night game, then have to travel back to their own country and play us again, especially in between big games they will have in top leagues back in Europe."
Such is the congested nature of the race for the final qualification spots in South America, New Zealand could still face any of Peru, Argentina, Chile or Paraguay. New Zealand qualified for the 2010 World Cup by defeating Bahrain in a playoff before missing out on Brazil 2014 following a defeat against Mexico at the same stage.
Wood admits playing a South American team will be a stern test for the Kiwis, who suffered defeats against Portugal, Mexico and Russia in this year's Confederations Cup. And he believes the time has come for Oceania and Asian Confederations to work more closely together to help both continents secured greater representation at the World Cup.
"Facing a team from South America, it will be tough," he said. "But it's an exciting challenge to know that, if we come out on top after the two legs, as we did in 2009, we will be off to the World Cup again in six or seven months' time. But I believe there could be other avenues or other ways of doing it [qualifying]
"They moved Australia into Asia [in 2005], but you could have a qualifying process whereby whoever wins Oceania could then go into Asia, play in their group matches and do it that way. "That would be better for our country and development too because we would be playing better countries on a regular basis. That would give five Asian teams the chance to qualify for the World Cup because they would then have Oceania's half place to add to theirs.
"When we talk about progressing our football, playing in Asia would be fantastic for us -- to learn and become a better side by playing against top quality opposition more often. At the moment, we play them every two years, if we are lucky, because we have to play our qualifying rounds first.
"Then we go to play teams that we can't dominate, or we don't have their ability. We will have stages in games, of course, but we don't dominate like an Argentina will dominate the ball against us.
"It's totally different to playing the likes of the Solomon Islands or Fiji, where we play on pitches that wouldn't be allowed, in footballing terms, in Europe. You also have to deal with conditions and referees that aren't as good as what you are used to.
"It's a challenge. Playing those countries can be a challenge. They set out and they don't like attacking, so they put 11 men behind the ball and try to keep it to 0-0 and nick a goal on the counter attack. In the past, we have been caught out by that."
Now, though, the focus is on the looming playoff and Wood believes New Zealand are in a win-win situation, whoever they face.
"It's a huge environment for New Zealand football," he said. "We are going to sell out the stadium, no matter what, and that will be fantastic for us as a nation.
"It will also be great for us in terms of financial terms, and planning for the next World Cup campaign, because if we sell-out the stadium, we get £1 million to go back into those things like business class travel for the players to and from New Zealand
"Both for the country and the federation, it will be a big positive step going forwards, no matter what happens. And I don't mind who we get. I guess on paper, people would say Peru or Paraguay, but they won't be easy either. Paraguay have already won in Argentina and they are both very solid at home. "We are under no illusions that, whoever it will be, we face a very tough match, but are ready for it, both mentally and physically. We are ready for them."
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_