The chance to top Group A at the OFC U-20 Championship and remain in Port Vila for a semi-final will be the driving motivation when Vanuatu and New Caledonia square off Saturday.
Meanwhile, Fiji are still clinging onto slim mathematical hopes of leapfrogging New Caledonia and earning a semi-final – a match that will essentially be a playoff for a place at next year’s FIFA World Cup in Korea – but their fate is not entirely in their own hands.
Vanuatu are already assured of a place in the semi-finals after back-to-back wins over Fiji and Papua New Guinea in front of vocal home support at Port Vila Stadium.
They would be equally well supported in Santo should they lose to New Caledonia and have to travel for a semi-final against the top team from Group B, but they are keen to remain in the capital where the team and the Vanuatu Football Federation academy is based.
“It’s very important for us to stay in Port Vila if possible,” said technical advisor Declan Edge.
“We know we’d have the crowd behind us wherever we play but there’s a short turnaround so you don’t want to lose one of the two days to travel.”
Concerns for Vanuatu this game involves four players – including two of their four goal scorers so far, Godine Tenene and Ronaldo Wilkins – on yellow cards. Another card against New Caledonia would see those players miss the semi-final but Edge says the game in front of them is the most important and they won’t be getting ahead of themselves.
“We’ve always said one game at a time and we’ll adjust if we need to for the next game.”
New Caledonia would only need a point to qualify for the final four, should Fiji win the day’s early match, but like Vanuatu they see travel before such a momentous opportunity as an unwelcome burden.
“If we want to stay in Port Vila we need to win this game,” said New Caledonia coach Kamali Fitealeata.
“To stay in Port Vila is much better than having to travel. Travelling makes things more complicated with packing up, rescheduling training sessions and takes up time.”
Fiji could yet pip New Caledonia for second spot but the odds are not in their favour.
Not only would they need to beat Papua New Guinea and hope Les Cagous lose to Vanuatu, but New Caledonia’s more favourable goal tally (five compared to Fiji’s one) and goal difference (+3 v -1) mean Fiji desperately need to find their scoring touch.
Fiji’s coach Yogendra Dutt says chasing a big win can attract its own problems and so seeking a more pragmatic approach.
“We’ll have to look for the first goal and then we can carry on from there,” said Dutt.
“If we ask the players to focus on getting a big margin of victory, then mistakes will creep in so we’ll look for one goal first and see how it unfolds on the day.
Increasing the degree of difficulty for Fiji is the fact that two senior players will serve a one game suspension for collecting two yellow cards in the group stage. Fiji’s most experienced player, captain Mataiasi Toma, will be tough to replace as a screen for the back four while fullback Bruce Hughes’ suspension further disrupts the defensive shape.
Papua New Guinea have endured a frustrating campaign in Port Vila. They were ahead against New Caledonia before a slow start to the second half cost them dearly. Similarly they were level with the host nation until they went down to 10 men for the majority of the second half.
While they cannot qualify for the next stage, coach Peter Gunemba has warned Fiji not to expect any favours and says personal, professional and national pride are still huge motivators for his player.
“We will play our own game. We will not listen to New Caledonia. We will not listen to Fiji. They’re playing for their country we’re playing for ours. We are Papua New Guinea so we will play hard for our country. If Fiji are to beat us they will have to play very well.”
Fiji and Papua New Guinea kick off at noon (local time) while New Caledonia and Vanuatu headline the day’s action at 3pm.
In Group B action on the island of Santo, New Zealand meet Solomon Islands in a top of the table clash while Tahiti will be chasing a big win against Cook Islands in order to improve their chances of qualifying.
Fiji vs Papua New Guinea
Port Vila Stadium
Port Vila, Vanuatu
Saturday 10 September
Kick-off: 12h00 VUT
Referee: Nelson SOGO (SOL)
Assistant Referee 1: Folio MOEAKI (TGA)
Assistant Referee 2: Stephen SENIGA (SOL)
Fourth Official: George TIME (SOL)
Vital Statistics: As well as a win, and a Vanuatu victory, Fiji need a combined five goal swing in goal difference (or a four goal swing if they better New Caledonia’s “goals for” tally) to finish in second place.
The Players: Two of Fiji’s senior players – captain Mataiasi Toma and Bruce Hughes – are suspended for Saturday’s must-win encounter.
Coach Quote: “The players need to understand that this is our last chance. This is our third game and after this there are no more chances.”
Fiji: 1. Jovilisi BORISI (GK), 2. Savenaca BALEDROKADROKA, 3. Suliano TAWANAKORO, 5. Vinal PRASAD, 6. Akeimi RALULU, 8. Afraz ALI, 9. Leroy JENNINGS, 10. Jeshal KUMAR, 11. Don RAJ, 12. Patrick JOSEPH, 13. Kartik KUMAR, 14. Simeli BATIRATU, 15. Ilaisa VULIMAINAVUSO, 16. Marika RAWASOI, 17. France CATAROGO, 18. Jonetani NEWA, 19. Zainal ALI, 20. Zoela BIUNAVUA (GK)
Suspended: 4. Bruce HUGHES, 7. Mataiasi TOMA.
Coach : Yogendra DUTT (FIJ)
Papua New Guinea
Vital Statistics: If Papua New Guinea had converted their halftime positions into the equivalent results at fulltime in their first two matches those four points would see them joint leaders with Vanuatu.
The Players: The pairing of Stahl Gubag and Gregory Togubai have been quiet achievers in central midfield for Papua New Guinea and have been crucial in the moments when Papua New Guinea have got on top of their opponents.
Coach Quote: “We will not just give away the game. We want to play for pride and to at least give Fiji a run for their money.”
Papua New Guinea: 1. Jonathan POLE (GK), 3. Darius JAMES, 4. Edward JOSHUA, 5. Gabby YANUM, 6. Peter DABINYABA, 7. Moses TUPA, 8. Gregory TOGUBAI, 9. Stahl GUBAG, 10. Jonah IHA, 11. Giwi SIMON, 12. George KOREI, 13. Alu AWI, 14. Jaggen NALU, 15. Oswald BADE, 16. Punchimil KEPINIU, 17. Winston SOMASI, 18. Felix KOMOLONG, 19. Edward LAKAE (GK).
Suspended: 2. Kenneth PILAILO
Coach: Peter GUNEMBA (PNG)
New Caledonia vs. Vanuatu
Port Vila Stadium
Port Vila, Vanuatu
Saturday 10 September
Kick-off: 15h00 VUT
Referee: Nick WALDRON (NZL)
Assistant Referee 1: Glen LOCHRIE (NZL)
Assistant Referee 2: John PAREANGA (COK)
Fourth Official: Campbell-Kirk WAUGH (NZL)
Vital Statistics: New Caledonia have only beaten Vanuatu once before at the OFC U-20 Championship, a 3-1 win in 2007.
The Players: The surname Gope-Fenepej has long been associated with New Caledonian football through the likes of European based Georges and John. U-20 midfielder Thomas Gope-Fenepej showed the flair for the spectacular might just be in the genes with his stunning volley against Fiji.
Coach Quote: “Qualifying for the semi-finals is our primary objective and we will need to make sure of that goal first but winning the pool is important and after our first two result we need to beat Vanuatu to achieve this.”
New Caledonia: 1. Mickaël ULILE (GK), 2. Gaëtan GOPE-IWATE, 3. Jean-Marc KAUDRE, 4. Brice KAI, 5. Pothin POMA, 6. Wapö ELE-HMAEA, 7. Bryan AUSU, 8. Shene WELEPANE, 9. Albert WATRONE, 10. Thomas GOPE-FENEPEJ, 11. Patrick GOHE, 12. Wéda WAITREU, 13. Warren HOUALA, 14. Romarick LUEPAK, 15. Henri BOUCHERON, 16. Lucas BITAUD, 17. Johanes BERNOLE, 18.Renzo WEJIEME, 19. Cyril NYPIE, 20. Nathanaël HLEMU (GK)
Coach: Kamali FITEALEATA (NCL)
Vital Statistics: Vanuatu’s nine match unbeaten streak at the OFC U-20 Championships is the longest by any nation other than New Zealand or Australia.
The Players: Godine Tenene, Sylvain Worworbu, Ronaldo Wilkins and Jayson Timatua are all walking a suspension tightrope. A yellow card in Saturday’s final group game would rule them out of the semi-final.
Coach Quote: “The boys are well rested. They’ve had an extra day for this game and they’re all young men. We sent then home for a day with their families yesterday so they should all be fresh.” – Declan Edge
Vanuatu: 1. Andreas DUCH (GK), 2. Joseph IARUEL, 3. Jason THOMAS, 4. Selwyn VATU, 5. Jesse KALOPONG, 6. Claude ARU, 7. Bong KALO, 8. Godine TENENE, 9. Sylvain WORWORBU, 10. Ronaldo WILKINS, 11. Jonathan SPOKEYJACK, 12. Abednigo SAU, 13. Tasso JEFFERY, 14. Timothy BOULET, 15. Gregory PATRICK, 16. Harison MASSING, 17. Jayson TIMATUA, 18. Max UGUNA, 19. Frederick MASSING, 23. Willie DICK (GK)
Coach: Etienne MERMER (VAN)