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Cook Islands and Samoa off to a flier

Cook Islands secured a 3-0 victory over Tonga, while Samoa survived an American Samoa comeback to prevail 3-2 in a tough derby.
Nuku’alofa’s Loto-Tonga Soka Centre provided perfect conditions for the opening game as a cooling Pacific Ocean breeze complemented sunny skies.
Striker Taylor Saghabi bagged all three goals either side of half-time where a well-organised Cook Islands claimed their first ever FIFA World Cup win.
Despite the one-sided scoreline Tonga battled valiantly throughout the contest and were unlucky not to score at least a consolation.
“The boys were really nervous and didn’t really find their rhythm until a few minutes into the second half,” said Cook Islands coach Drew Sherman.
“We know that when we play our football we are a good team, so we just had to persevere until that comes.
“When we did play and we move the ball quickly, we found pockets of space. It wasn’t any magic half-time team talk, it was a case of settling the boys down.
“This team really works hard for each other, and it is one of our big qualities.”
Both teams started with clear determination as they finally took to the field following a lengthy build-up, although the hectic early action suggested nerves were at play for both sets of teams.
Tonga, playing their first home FIFA World Cup qualifier for 19 years, duly opened with hunger enjoying some early success with long balls.
The home side soon threatened as Hemaloto Polovili broke downfield and his pullback found Fineasi Palei only for goalkeeper Tahiri Elikana to make a point-blank save at his opponents’ feet. The shotstopper was forced into action again to deal with an awkward free-kick from near the sideline, before Cook Islands enjoyed their first sight of goal as Grover Harmon headed narrowly wide from a corner.
At the other end Josh Karika fired in a dangerous low free-kick which failed to connect with a succession of attackers, and the same player then pushed a header wide moments later as the visitors finally found their feet.
Seven minutes before the break Cook Islands nabbed the all-important opener as a perfectly-flighted corner cleared a pack of players including Tonga goalkeeper Heneli Saafi, allowing Saghabi to gleefully push home from close range.
The half ended with Tonga turning up the pressure but the men in green remained resolute in defence.
The Cook Islands could have doubled their lead within moments of the restart as Paavo Mustonen pinged a free-kick from wide against the frame of the goal
They didn’t have long to wait for their second with Saghabi grabbing his second seven minutes after the interval. The No 11 side-footed home after a perfect run and square ball by Karika
That man Karika had his own chance to get on the scoresheet but pushed his effort inches wide, with the guile of attacking midfielder Harlom Simiona creating the opening.
The Cook Islands were increasingly in the ascendency against the tiring team in red, and it was no surprise when the visitors grabbed a third to put the match out of sight on the hour mark.
Saghabi nailed his hat-trick in style with a run off the shoulder of his marker, before rifling past the goalkeeper from 15 metres as he took advantage of a slide-rule Simiona pass.
Cook Islands were a constant threat from set-pieces and Simiona glanced a header onto keeper Saafi with the ball trickling a metre wide of the goal.
Captain Mark Uhatahi then spurned a wonderful chance to get Tonga on the scoreboard, but pushed his shot wide with only the keeper to beat as the match really opened up.
The contest did, however, lose some of its flow in the latter stages, although Hemaloto Polovili’s shot forced a good save from Elikana. The same player then hit a rasping low shot just wide of the post as Tonga narrowly failed to net a deserved consolation.
There was a final chance in the dying seconds for Cook Islands as Saafi half-blocked an effort from substitute Campbell Best and it needed the intervention of defender Sione Uhatahi to stop the ball crossing the line.
The second match proved a feisty and entertaining contest with a real derby feel. Samoa raced to a 3-0 lead inside the opening half-hour, but were forced to survive a tense finale as American Samoa pulled back to 3-2 on the back of a Demetrius Beauchamp double.
“We expected they (American Samoa) could come at us given their overseas players and their warm-up match against Fiji,” said Samoa coach Phineas Young.
“Our style was to build up from the back and play the ball wide, but we didn’t do that in the second half with one player sent off.”
Samoa icon Desmond Faaiuaso scored from close range thanks to Andrew Mobberley’s set-up, and the new-look American Samoa side look rattled in the early stages.
The speedy Samoa front pair of Mobberley and Faaiuaso proved a constant menace throughout, narrowly coming close to breaching their opponents’ rearguard on several occasions.
The seemingly inevitable second goal, however, arrived via a set-piece as Faitalia Hamilton-Pama headed towards goal at the back-post from a corner and, although goalkeeper Pita Falevalu punched clear, the ball was deemed to have crossed the line.
It was soon three as Mobberley coolly slotting home, after a pacy run from Faaiuaso down the right had created the opportunity.
The ever-dangerous Faaiuaso came within inches of another goal after heading back across the face of goal from an acute angle as Samoa threatened to run riot.
American Samoa were reeling but they were far from knocked out. Midfielder Jordan Grant thought he had pulled a goal back after putting the ball in the net off a sweeping Ramin Ott pass only to be denied by the offside flag. The same player then had a similar sight of goal just moments later, but skewed his shot just over.
American Samoa, however, were not to be denied as Beauchamp deservedly got his side on the scoresheet seven minutes before the break with a stunning turn and shot from 25 metres which looped over Falevalu.
The end-to-end action continued in the second half with both teams pressing at every opportunity, while Samoa always looked dangerous at the break.
The match took another shift soon after the interval with Lapalapa Toni sent off for a foul.
American Samoa perhaps had the better of the possession stakes but it was their opponents, despite the numerical disadvantage, who invariably created the better openings.
Silao Malo hit a fierce shot narrowly over the crossbar and Faaiuaso was denied by a superb Falevalu block.
Beauchamp then set up a chaotic and tense finale with his second of the match four minutes after the break, as the tall frontman deftly finished off Tor-Lawrence Mana’o’s cross from the right.
The chances kept coming until the final whistle as impressive midfielder Ryan Aloalii Mitchell fired from distance and, although Toetu spilled his effort, the loose ball was cleared in the nick of time.
“I think there was one half of an excellent performance from us,” said American Samoa coach Larry Mana’o.
“We had some first game jitters with plenty of young guys. A good second half, very determined and a little unlucky.
“If I had two halves like the second then I think the game would have been a lot closer. My expectations were met in the second half, not the first.”
The 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ Qualifiers OFC Stage 1 continues on Wednesday 2 September at Loto-Tonga Soka Centre in Tonga with Cook Islands against Samoa followed by American Samoa versus Tonga.

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