OlyWhites goalkeeper Michael Woud's resilience was on full display as he helped his side draw 0-0 with Romania and advance to the quarterfinals at the Tokyo Olympics, where they will play hosts Japan on Saturday [kickoff 9pm NZ time].
Three days after he played a part, to some extent, in all three goals they conceded in losing to Honduras , he came up with three crucial saves, in a match where the Kiwis dominated possession, but couldn't find a goal.
With South Korea beating Honduras 6-0 in Wednesday's other group B match, a draw was enough for OlyWhites to advance to the knockout stages ahead of Romania on goal difference, but it would have been a different story had they conceded and lost.
Woud's first major intervention came early, when he palmed away an effort from Eduard Florescu, who cut in from the right and aimed his shot at the goalkeeper's near post.
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His second came on the hour mark, when he squeezed the ball between his legs to deny Marius Marin, who tried to head home at a corner.
And his third followed seven minutes later, when he batted away a back-post header from Andrei Rațiu.
Coach Danny Hay had put his faith to bounce back, saying before the match that it would be a chance for Woud, who plays professionally in the Dutch second-tier for Almere City, to "erase the memories of a few nights ago".
And when the final whistle blew at the Sapporo Dome, his delight for the goalkeeper, who he has known since he coached him as a schoolboy at Sacred Heart College in Auckland, was plain to see.
"I thought Michael was outstanding," Hay said in the post-match press conference.
"One game does not define a player. It doesn't define a player’s career and I think we're all aware Michael is a goalkeeper of huge potential. It's easy to forget that he's only 22.
"Yes, he made some mistakes against Honduras, but he just showed what level of resilience he's got.
"The way the team surrounded him over the last couple of days and the support they gave him was really pleasing to see. I think Michael's performance was a reflection of how his team-mates have helped him through a tough couple of days."
Woud's performance has also ensured his team's stay in Japan will extend at least until Saturday, when they will face their hosts in a quarterfinal – the first time in three tournaments a New Zealand men's team has made it that far.
Hay had signalled changes would be made to an OlyWhites team that had played its first two matches in the heat in Kashima, beating South Korea 1-0 in their opener – a result all the more impressive now their opponents have scored 10 unanswered goals – before losing 3-2 to Honduras on Sunday after leading twice.
He changed from the 3-4-3 formation he had introduced for this tournament to the 4-3-3 he had previously used with the All Whites, while handing starts to Joey Champness, Callan Elliot, Matt Garbett, and Marko Stamenic, in place of Dane Ingham, Clayton Lewis, Callum McCowatt, and injured captain Winston Reid.
The OlyWhites had more possession than they did in their first two matches, building out from the back via centre backs Nando Pijnaker and Gianni Stensness, who both had strong outings, and would have been disappointed not to have scored, especially in the first half.
Champness was a live wire, twice getting in behind and trying to find Chris Wood, once off the back of a well-executed press, and he also had a couple of blocked shots himself.
Wood went close with a header at a corner, and with a free kick sent along the ground, palmed away by Romanian keeper Marian Aioani, who also cleared the ball at a corner from the tip of the English Premier League striker's nose.
Elliot had picked up a booking late in the second half and was replaced by Ingham at halftime, while McCowatt came on in place of Champness, and Lewis later replaced Garbett, with Stamenic picking up his second yellow card in as many matches, which will rule him out of the team's quarterfinal.
The OlyWhites continued to dictate terms for most of the second half, but couldn't fashion the goal they needed to give themselves breathing space, and as the scores stayed level at 0-0, Romania began to push forward, forcing Woud into action twice.
The Kiwis' best chance to find a winner in the second half came when a Cacace cross fell to Wood in the box, but he couldn't get a clean shot off.
When there was a glimpse of the OlyWhites' bench late on, their nerves were clear to see, and when the final whistle blew, there was a clear sense of relief.
South Korea topped group B with six points, with the OlyWhites and Romania behind them on four points – the Kiwis getting their noses in front by virtue of their superior goal difference, 0 to -3.
New Zealand has previously made it to the knockout stages at six international men's tournaments – three Under-17 World Cups and three Under-20 World Cups – but this was the first time it has done so at an Olympics, where teams consist predominantly of under-24 players, with up to three older players allowed.
They will now play Japan, the top finisher in group A, who have had wins over South Africa (1-0), Mexico (2-1), and France (3-0) so far on home soil.
Tokyo Olympics – men's football tournament, group B
OlyWhites 0 Romania 0. HT: 0-0
South Korea 6 Honduras 0. HT: 3-0
Points (goal difference): South Korea 6 (+9), OlyWhites 4 (0), Romania 4 (-3), Honduras 3 (-6)
OlyWhites advance to the quarterfinals on Saturday where they will play Japan [kickoff 9pm NZ time].
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