Football: Gutsy All Whites grind out impressive victory over Curacao on international return

The All Whites have claimed an impressive victory on their international return, defeating Curacao 2-1 at Arad's Al Muharraq Stadium in Bahrain on Sunday morning (NZ time). 

Playing against the side ranked 42 places higher than them in football's world rankings, the All Whites impressed in the first half, scoring twice, before being forced to show their defensive steel to close out an important victory.

Taking to the field for the first time in nearly 700 days, the All Whites named three debutants in their starting side, with the trio of right-back Niko Kirwan, and central midfield pair Marko Staminec and Matthew Garbett.

But kitted in all black, it was the All Whites that grabbed the early momentum. Played through on goal by the outstanding Sarpreet Singh, captain Chris Wood spurned the first real chance of the match, shooting wide of the target. 

However, it wouldn't be long before the All Whites got onto the scoresheet. After left-back Liberato Cacace won a free-kick, central defender Bill Tuiloma stepped up to play the surprise hero role.

Having proven himself as a dead ball specialist playing in Major League Soccer with Portland Timbers, Tuiloma stepped up and fired a free-kick into the Curacao net, aided by a wicked deflection that left goalkeeper Tyrick Bodak stranded for his maiden international goal.

Despite having not played for so long since a 1-0 defeat to Lithuania in November 2019, the All Whites' improvement was for all to see. The pressing game implemented by manager Danny Hay paid off towards the end of the first half.

As Staminec and Garbett combined to win the ball in midfield, a quick passage of play saw Callum McCowatt play Wood in on goal, with the striker needing no second invitation to fire the ball past Bodak with his left foot, seeing the All Whites lead 2-0 at the break.

Wood's goal, his 25th for New Zealand, moves him into outright second as the All Whites' all-time leading scorer, now three behind Vaughan Coveny's 28. 

Curacao meanwhile, managed by former Netherlands and Barcelona forward Patrick Kluivert, let their frustrations boil over - making several late tackles that were waved on by the referee.

But Curacao's approach paid dividends in the second half, as their patience paid off in the second half. 

A cross into the box got the better of Kirwan before Jarchinio Antonia found striker Rangelo Janga in the area. Janga held off the challenge of Nando Pijnaker before he rifled a shot past goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic to bring Curacao back into the contest.

Chasing an equaliser, Curacao threw the kitchen sink at the All Whites and nearly had a second goal when captain Leonardo Bacuna was found unmarked in the box, only to be denied by Marinovic at his near post, with the Kiwi keeper pulling off a stunning stop low to his left.

That would prove to be Curacao's final chance, as the All Whites showed all of their nous to close out the victory and lay an important stake in the ground after such a long time out of the international arena. 

The All Whites finish their October international window fixtures against hosts Bahrain at the same venue on Wednesday morning (NZ time), with both matches serving as valuable practice for New Zealand's upcoming qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Join Newshub for live updates of the All Whites v Bahrain from 5am Wednesday.