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Cook Islands triumph in Tonga

Samoa and hosts Tonga played out a thrilling 3-3 draw in today’s other match at the Loto-Tonga Soka Centre in Nuku’alofa.
Knowing that a win would secure their progression to September’s OFC U-20 Championship in Vanuatu, Cook Islands went into the third and final day of competition in the driving seat.
However with so much at stake Tuka Tisam’s men looked tentative and nervous during the early exchanges with American Samoa.
A 14th minute yellow card to key midfielder Dwayne Tiputoa furher increased the anxiety inside the Cook Islands camp before Michael Wood released the pressure by passing the diving Kinilau Pouli with a low drive from the edge of the box on the half hour mark.
With the opening goal settling their nerves, Tusam’s charges have quickly grown in confidence and seven minutes later they doubled their advantage courtesy of Kimiora Samuela who tapped home following a left cross from Conroy Tiputoa.
To their credit, American Samoa have fought hard to get back into the match with promising runs on both flanks, but they were unable to create any meaningful chances against the well drilled Cook Islands defence.
In the second half Dwayne Tiputoa scored twice in quick succession to put the result beyond any doubt by the 56th minute.
With the intensity gone from the game gaps started to open up and Tiputoa took full advantage to grab his hat-trick with a well taken drive following one of his trademark runs.
It was a fitting way to crown a commanding performance which booked Cook Islands ticket to Oceania’s premier youth competition in September, which will also double as the next stage of qualification for the 2017 FIFA World Cup in Korea.
Tisam couldn’t hide his delight following his side’s triumph.
“We have achieved our goal which we have set out to do, so congratulations to the boys,” he said.
“It was a well deserved and well planned win and everything we worked on our technical sessions came together today.
“The boys executed the game plan to perfection, we created a lot of good chances we managed to put five of them away.
“This qualification is huge for the game in the Cook Islands with all the youngsters coming up will be looking at it as motivation,” Tisam added.
Goalkeeper captain Keegan Inia said it was a relief to secure the last available spot at the U-20 OFC Championship.
“We all stayed up late last night wondering what will happen but on the day we kept our discipline and it all came together on the day.
“I think we deserved it and it means a lot to us all,” Inia said.
Meanwhile American Samoan coach Sione Mau has admitted his side was comprehensively outplayed by Cook Islands.
“They deserved to win and all credit to them, I wish them good luck in the second stage in Vanuatu.
“I think Cook Islands were the best team from the outset of this tournament and they deserved to finish on top.” Mau said.
Cook Islands win over American Samoa has shattered the qualification hopes of hosts Tonga and Samoa, yet the two sides showed plenty of passion and pride to produce a six-goal thriller to end the tournament on a high note.
Tonga captain Hemaloto Polovili marked his return from a one match suspension with a well taken low drive from the edge of the box to give his side the lead inside 10 minutes.
The skipper grabbed his second half 30 minutes later as the hosts raced two a 2-0 first half lead.
Samoa did manage to regroup to come out with intent after the break.
Their never-say-die attitude paid dividends in 66th minute when Pago Tunupopo pulled a goal back by netting from close range.
Four minutes later Samoa were back on level terms thanks again to Tunupopo, who grabbed his brace with a rifling left footed drive from inside the box.
Samoan celebrations could only last for three minutes before Polovili completed his hat-trick with a clinical low strike to give his side a 3-2 lead.
But there was still time for a twist in the 80th minute when Samuel Malo converted from the penalty spot.
Despite a tense and frantic finish to the match, which included eight minutes of injury time, the two sides were forced to settle for a share of the points.
Samoa coach Paul Ualesi says he was pleased with his team’s performance.
“It was a good comeback from the boys after being 2-0 down at half time so I’m proud of them.
“Once we found out what happened in the first game we knew we couldn’t qualify so the boys were a bit deflated at first,” he said.
“But they showed plenty of character to pick themselves up and they played with a lot of heart to end the tournament in second place.”
His Tongan counterpart Tevita Moala said the draw was a fair result and the match a fitting end of to a closely fought tournament.
“First I want to thank Samoa for a great game today.
“We started really well and we dominated the first half but Samoa came back at us and they deserved to get something out of the game.
“It’s disappointing that we failed to qualify but we haven’t been defeated throughout the tournament and I am proud of my boys,” Moala said.

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