New Caledonia took the advantage over Solomon Islands in the day’s second match with a 3-1 win marking their first in the competition so far.
The evening’s action was then rounded out with another heartening performance from competition darlings American Samoa as they were undone 4-0 by a superior Vanuatu side.
Papua New Guinea looked like they could be on track to cause an upset early on as coach Wynton Rufer took heed from their previous match’s 1-1 draw with American Samoa, setting up strong defensive structure.
“We did well right up to the 44th minute, we were right in the match but we got caught sleeping and allowed the Fijian left back to wind in a great cross and they scored.”
“If we had dealt with that situation then it’s a different game in the second half,” Rufer rues.
Fiji made their intentions clear from early on as they not only searched for the goals to win the game, but for a score line that could help their campaign over the line should they need.
Papua New Guinea for their part, did their best to deny the Fijians, shutting down the host’s attempts to penetrate the defence and making swift counter attacks of their own through Steven Inia and Papalau Awele in particular.
The match remained tied until the 43 minute when Al-taaf Sahib got on the end of Nickel Chand cross to knock the opener past Jimmy Gibson, making his first appearance in goal after Vagi Koniel picked up an injury on Sunday.
Papua New Guinea continued trying to take any opportunities that came their way, but struggled against the power and athleticism of their opponents.
Fiji soon extended their lead when a Narendra Rao corner lofted into the box onto the head of Mataiasi Toma in the 55th minute. Twenty minutes later lofty striker Saula Waqa hammered in the final nail after being well set-up by fellow substitute Ashnil Raju.
With things going to plan for Fiji, coach Ravinesh Kumar was deservedly pleased with the final result.
“The boys played well and performed to their best level. We came to get three points and that’s what we’ve achieved today,” he says.
“The team know the importance of our win today and the importance of the Vanuatu match that is coming up. The next match can go a long way to determining their destiny in this competition.”
A meeting of two of the three sides still hoping for their first win in this competition followed as New Caledonia with two defeats, took on Solomon Islands, who had a win and a draw ahead of kick-off.
With everything still to play for both sides came out with the goal firmly in sight. It looked like results could go either way as the two goalkeepers were called into action early on, but it was the Francophone team who took the advantage.
Twelve minutes in Eugene Sakilia made a flying run into the box before cutting back to an unmarked Raphael Oiremoin who lined up his shot before slamming it between the posts.
The remainder of the first period was back and forth, though the fantastic footwork and on-ball talent Solomon Islands’ players are renowned for certainly saw Solomon Islands taking their fair share of chances.
After the break the action continued as it had left off but Solomon Islands slowly but surely getting closer to their target. They finally had their equaliser in the 66th minute as New Caledonia goalkeeper Thomas Schmidt palmed down an effort at his near post, only for it to bounce cruelly across his goal for a waiting Atkin Kaua to blast in past him as he scrambled.
Solomon Islands continued to heap the pressure on a tiring New Caledonian defence and looked like taking the lead a number of times. They dominated possession, enjoying 58 per cent throughout the match, but continued to struggle in the finishing.
However the firm resolve of the Caledonians and a couple of shrewd substitutions from coach Kamali Fitialeata saw them stand strong before inching themselves ahead in the 81st minute. A free kick lofted in by Johan Idrele came to Philip Mango in goal but all he could do was watch as he knocked it down to Joseph Athele who ruthlessly fired it in.
Substitute Valentin Nyikeine took the final honours when he cut inside his defender and fired low with this right under a diving Mango with just a minute of normal time to go, ending all hopes of a Solomons comeback.
An emotional Fitialeata says it was a relief when the whistle finally sounded to end the match.
“Frankly, this result is a relief and feels incredibly good. That was obvious at the end with the reaction of the boys,” he says.
“I have to congratulate the Solomon Islands team, I think they’re one of the best teams which knows how to run and play freely with the ball. It’s regrettable that we’ve won against them, but you need a winner and a loser, and today it was us.”
Solomon Islands assistant coach Gideon Omokirio was disappointed a display like that from his side couldn’t secure them their first win at this tournament.
“We came into the game hoping to win, especially after seeing how many goal scoring opportunities we’ve missed in previous games,” he explains.
“We came to try and score goals but unfortunately that didn’t happen. I think technique and being in the right position to connect the ball with the net were what went wrong on the field.”
Solomon Islands had 22 shots on goal to New Caledonia’s 16, with 11 going off target. While they Omokirio’s boys had no trouble getting the ball into the penalty area, of the 13 crosses they sent just ten were successful.
In the final match of the day, Vanuatu took on American Samoa and secured a desired, and much needed, 4-0 victory.
Desperately in need of a win to keep themselves in title contention, Vanuatu assistant coach Anthony Pisano was pleased with an improved performance but believes there is still some work to be done.
“I’m happy with the way we played but there’s still some work to be done in the front third,” he says.
With a strong need for goals Vanuatu went with an attacking line-up keeping Justin Koka, Bong Kalo, Remy Kalsrap and Alphonse Lency leading the charge.
The first goal came relatively quickly for the Vanuatu side as Bong Kalo found the back of the net just 14 minutes in. They had a nervy wait for the second with American Samoa keeping a tight ship at the back with Neemia Kaleop, Johnny Sione, Paul Collins and captain Rueben Luvu all performing mightily.
Goalkeeper Frederick Maiava, who is emerging as a real fan favourite, remained calm and collected between the sticks as he denied a number of clear goals to keep his side in the match for much of the first half.
Alex Saniel’s 41st minute goal put a dampener on American Samoan dreams just ahead of the break, but for Vanuatu to lead by 2-0 was comfortable with 45 minutes still remaining.
The second half spell didn’t take long to break as ten minutes back into it Gersom Kalsong fired in a long range attempt that even a diving Maiava couldn’t halt this time. Kalsong competed a brace in the 68th minute when he picked up a ball knocked out by Maiava, cut inside and released for Vanuatu’s fourth.
A yellow card for defensive stalwart Rueben Luvu in the 76th appeared to throw American Samoa’s concentration somewhat as the realisation he would be missing from their next encounter hit home. His father and coach Rupeni Luvu was sent to the stands soon after that caution which didn’t help his side’s cause.
Vanuatu certainly enjoyed not only the majority of possession, a whopping 77 per cent, but also spend a lot of time in the final third, seeing in 15 shots on target and 13 off to American Samoa’s one on, two off.
Once again in search of a win, Luvu says despite the loss he’s happy with the performance and the progress that has been made by the team at this competition.
“We’ve progressed a lot since the first game, now we have started to see a few balls coming out of our half and we’ve been able to take a few shots – which in comparison with our first game is real
ly good,” he says.
“We tried going through the middle and that didn’t work too well so we left one man up front and tried to feed him where we could.”
The OFC U-20 Championship continues with Match Day 4 on Thursday, 29 May at ANZ Stadium in Suva.
The two bottom ranked sides Solomon Islands and American Samoa will open the day’s action at 2.30pm before the headline match between the top two sides Vanuatu and Fiji gets underway at 5pm. Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia will close out proceedings at 7.30pm.
Download match summary here.