POLOKWANE // New Zealand's World Cup fairytale came to an end after a goalless draw with Paraguay but they return home better for the experience. In the end it was not All White on the night for Ricki Herbert's side as Slovakia's win over Italy meant the Europeans sneaked into second spot. But New Zealand finished Group F unbeaten. And another resolute performance by a nation playing at only their second World Cup - the first was in 1982 when they lost all three matches and conceded 12 goals - will have at least given the fans back home who stayed up for the 2am kick-off New Zealand time something to cheer.
And while Paraguay topped the group Gerardo Martino, their coach, bemoaned his side's lack of a cutting edge. "We played very badly in the first half and we played better in the second half," he said. "I'm pleased with the qualification but not with the way we played. "We had a lot of problems in an area where we didn't expect, and that was in attack." Herbert, though, felt his side bowed out with pride. "I am delighted with what the guys have done. I'll need to pinch myself," the New Zealand coach said.
"Probably tonight was always going to be based on those one or two chances and if we got them then great. It is really great we are talking about beating the likes of Paraguay. That is fantastic. "We will not go through another World Cup unbeaten. It is only our second time at the World Cup so to come here and completely reverse what we did before is amazing. Can you get any closer [to qualifying]? A lot of people thought we shouldn't have been here, that we had amateurs in the team that weren't good enough but I think that is dead and buried now."
New Zealand's game plan, as it had been all along, was to keep things tight at the back. Their five-man defence, marshalled by Ryan Nelsen, was supplemented by Ivan Vicelich and Simon Elliot, the holding midfielders, sitting just a few yards in front. Playing for the first time in the tournament in the black shirts so synonymous with the country's rugby team, they began well. Shane Smeltz, who attained hero status by scoring in the 1-1 draw with Italy, blazed over from outside the penalty area in the fifth minute while Chris Killen was only inches away from connecting with Elliott's hanging free-kick to the far post.
When the space did open up for Paraguay Nelson Valdez overhit his cross from the left while Denis Caniza followed suit with a volley after Roque Santa Cruz had lifted the ball over Tony Lochhead. It said a lot about New Zealand's tactics that Caniza, the right-back, was getting all the chances as he hit a 20-yard swerving shot over the angle of crossbar and post and then dropped a dipping drive onto the roof of Mark Paston's net. Oscar Cardozo also blasted over as Paraguay finished the first half on top.
It was immediately apparent after the interval that Herbert had released some of the shackles with Lochhead given more licence to get forward. It almost paid off within three minutes of the restart when the left-back's cross deflected into the path of Elliott whose strike fizzed past Justo Villar's right-hand post. Nelsen was booked for halting the run of Santa Cruz in the 57th minute but Cardozo's free-kick was disappointing.
Paston, who had been relatively untroubled, produced an instinctive save from Cristian Riveros's diving header as the South American's quality began to tell. Santa Cruz, the Manchester City striker, said: "We're very happy to have qualified but it was a very difficult game. "The game got boring because they were so defensive. In a game like this you expect to win but the important thing is we qualified." * PA Man of the match: Shane Smeltz (New Zealand)