New Zealand's All Whites are just a score draw away from qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Finals in Russia after determinedly fighting out a scoreless draw with Peru in front of 37,034 fans - a record attendance for a football match in New Zealand - at Westpac Stadium on 11 November.
Anthony Hudson's side well deserved this result, one of the best in the country's history, given their opponents are ranked tenth in the world, and are just the second South American nation to visit New Zealand to play a full international - Chile, in February 1998 at Mt. Smart Stadium, were first to cross the Pacific in this direction to play here, and that match, too, ended in a 0-0 draw.
Nearly twenty years on, however, things could have been decidedly different just seven minutes into this contest, when Yoshimar Yotun pinged a ball in from the left which perfectly bi-sected Tommy Smith and the outstanding Winston Reid, presenting Jefferson Farfan with a sniff of a chance.
The striker prodded the ball goalwards, the ball deflecting off Reid and past the advancing figure of Stefan Marinovic, who beat a hasty retreat towards goal as the ball rolled agonisingly towards it.
With a desperate head-long dive, the 'keeper used every inch of his formidable frame to get the tips of his fingers round the ball and flick it off the line - two more seconds and it would have been a goal which would have delighted the impressive Peruvian contingent among the gathered hordes, and broken the hearts of many All Whites fans.
Having dodged a bullet, the natives tried to get into the contest, but had to make do with scraps from the rich man's table, the world's tenth-ranked nation dominating possession in a manner you would expect of a team from a country where football is as close to a religion as you can get.
An interception by Marco Rojas prompted a roar in the sixteenth minute, particularly when the striker swiftly charged past two opponents seconds later. But he was tackled in full flight, prompting a Peruvian counter-attack which culminated in Andre Carrillo's cross being headed narrowly past the far post by Farfan.
Yotun, who was pinging the ball all over the park from his left-midfield role, picked out Farfan in the nineteenth minute with one such pass. The striker flicked it on to Christian Cueva, dashing through behind him. He cleverly evaded two opponents, only to undo his good work with a finish from the high, wide and far from handsome department.
This prompted an All Whites raid in which the ever-enterprising Ryan Thomas was instrumental. Unfortunately, his cross was blocked, while Deklan Wynne's follow-up delivery struck the arm of a Peruvian defender, prompting a collective roar from a partisan crowd eager to see the All Whites gain the upper hand on the scoreboard.
It was never a penalty, however, although USA referee Mark Geiger got himself onside with the natives four minutes later when booking Yotun for a vicious forearm slam he administered between Reid's shoulder blades in an off-the-ball incident - the fullback was fortunate that the card shown wasn't the colour of his playing kit!
All Whites coach Anthony Hudson had surprised all-comers by naming leading striker Chris Wood as a substitute for this match, due to concerns about his hamstring injury. His absence saw Costa Barbarouses in the spotlight as a makeshift targetman, minus the height such a position requires.
But Barbarouses' lack of inches equates to a lower centre of gravity, and his speed unhinged the Peruvian defence in the 33rd minute. Wynne and Thomas combined to play their team-mate through the inside left channel, and Barbarouses duly supplied the perfect cross across the face of goal, right to where Wood would have been arriving on cue had he been on the park.
Instead, it was a relieved Peru team which took up possession once more, and two minutes later, Yotun pinged another of his cross-field balls around the pitch, this one going beyond all-comers bar Cueva.
He played it inside to Carrillo, who flicked it on hoping that Farfan would get the better of Marinovic. But the 'keeper was wise to the danger, and snuffed out the last chance of the first half by saving at the striker's feet.
"La Blanquirroja" upped the ante early in the second spell, prompting doggedly determined defending aplenty by the All Whites, with captain Reid standing and delivering from the front, to the delight of the crowd.
Cueva and Edison Flores thought they'd found a
way through their opponents' rearguard just before the hour mark, only to undo their good work by playing the ball behind the incoming figure of Farfan, much to the striker's frustration.
That of the South American team was increasing by the minute, and was reflected in the atmosphere generated by their fans. In the early stages of the match, their singing dominated the airwaves, but they gradually quietened, their nerves evident as the All Whites failed to follow the expected script.
The visitors came desperately close to breaking the deadlock in the 63rd minute, Cueva's corner picking out the head of Aldo Corzo, soaring between defenders some eight yards out from goal. His header bulleted towards the target, only to be tipped over superbly by Marinovic - his second stunning save of the match.
The custodian, who now holds the record for most successive appearances made by an All White in FIFA "A" internationals - this was his 23rd consecutive international, two more than previous record-holder Ricki Herbert managed between June 1982 and October 1984 - was right behind a twenty-yarder from Flores soon afterwards, as Peru pressed on in search of the breakthrough goal.
It wouldn't come, however. Indeed, if a goal was going to be scored, it looked like it would be the All Whites who would be celebrating the feat, especially after Wood was introduced from the substitute's bench with sixteen minutes remaining.
His very first task was to take charge of a thirty yard free-kick, which he hit with venom and forced Peruvian goalkeeper Pedro Gallese to make his first save of the contest. But a split-second before Wood took the kick, referee Geiger spotted some kerfuffle on the edge of the penalty area, with Renato Tapia appearing to have been pushed to the ground by Michael Boxall.
The All Whites' defender was booked for his troubles - extremely harshly, as a replay of the incident showed, Tapia having indulged in the "dark arts" for which South American football is renowned to fool the officials and earn his side a reprieve.
Wood spurned the re-take, but was a pivotal figure in the All Whites' next attack of note, nine minutes later. Michael McGlinchey lobbed the ball forward towards the attacking pivot, whose presence in the heart of Peru's defence prompted a panicked clearance, straight into the stride of Barbarouses, whose twenty-five yard snapshot swerved wide of Gallese's left-hand upright.
Four minutes from time, the All Whites came within inches of recording arguably their greatest ever victory, which a win over a football team ranked tenth in the world would surely have to be from a New Zealand sporting perspective.
Wood sliced a snapshot across the face of goal, but fellow substitute Bill Tuiloma chased it down and fired in a cross to the far post. Once more, a nervous clearance from Peru nearly came back to haunt them, the ball this time arriving perfectly in the stride of Thomas, who let rip from the edge of the area with a first-time volley for which Gallese never moved - he was beaten all ends up, make no mistake.
It's safe to say Peru's number one was a very relieved man when he saw the ball graze his left-hand upright and slam against the stanchion. Around him, the sounds of the vast majority of the 37,034 fans present were united as one - a cry of "Oohhhh!" their instant response to this closest effort of all, swiftly followed by another healthy dose of "All Whites! All Whites!"
Back came Peru in the dying minutes, Yotun's left foot carving out another opening with a probing ball into the All Whites' penalty area. Farfan fouled Marinovic in the process of getting to the sphere, an infringement which was overlooked by officialdom.
Justice, thankfully, was served, Farfan's retrieval of the ball culminating in a shot from substitute Pedro Aquino which screwed wide of the near post, ensuring that this most enthralling of FIFA World Cup intercontinental play-off clashes would conclude as it began - 0-0, and all to play for at Lima's National Stadium from 3.15pm on Thursday, NZ time.
All Whites: Marinovic; Boxall (booked, 75), Reid, Smith (Durante, 67); Colvey, Lewis (Wood, 74), McGlinchey (booked, 68, Wynne; Rojas (Tuiloma, 78), Barbarouses, Thomas
Peru: Gallese; Corzo, Ramos, Rodriguez, Trauco; Carrillo (Hurtado, 78), Tapia, Yotun (booked, 24) (Aquino, 86); Cueva (Polo, 90); Farfan, Flores
Referee: Mark Geiger (USA)