Photo Credit: OFC Media via Tonga FA

Cook Islands have held on to clinch a narrow 1-0 victory against hosts Tonga in a tight final match at the OFC Men’s Nations Cup 2024 – Qualifying. 

A qualification spot at the OFC Men’s Nations Cup might have been over for both sides, but there remained plenty to play for with both teams determined to end the competition on a high. Several local school students filled Teufaiva Stadium, spurring Tonga on, but they were kept quiet for the start the match, with the Cook Islands having the lion share of possession.

Resolute defending from Tonga held their opponents attack at bay for the first quarter of the half. Using the speed of Elias Kendler, the home side launched an attack, but great defence from Nia Remuera nullified a delightful through ball for Kendler.

Nearly 30 minutes into the match and an opportunity went begging for the Cook Islands. A long ball into the Tongan box caused problems, with the clearing header falling to the feet of Tremaine Rimene-Albrett, who blasted the ball over the bar.

Down the other end of the pitch, some sloppy defence lead to a great chance for Tonga in the 33rd minute. A splitting pass back from Kendler found Kulisitofa Kite free in the box, with his shot just glancing wide of the left-hand post.

A great ball in from the wing found Harlem Simiona in the area and he twisted and turned before firing off a low shot that forced a top draw save from Semisi Otukolo. Using that momentum the Cook Islands finally broke the stubborn Tonga defence in the 38th minute.

A delivery from the left wing looked to be covered by the home team, when the ball bounced off the defender into Taylor Saghabi, who despite miss-timing his shot, connected well enough with the ball to see it bounce into the net and give his side the lead at the break.

Full of confidence and seeking another goal, the Cook Islands went straight on attack in the second-half. In the 51st minute, Saghabi’s pinpoint free kick found the head of captain Grover Harmon, only to be denied by the crossbar.

Humid conditions started to sap the players energy with several going down with cramp and injuries. That meant substitutions would play a pivotal role, and they did for Tonga. In the 73rd minute, Papani put substitute Vai Lutu in on goal with just the goalkeeper to beat, but he scuffed his shot and it trickled into the safe arms of Ngereine Maro.

In the final quarter of the match Tonga started to fight their way back into contention, with their dominance in possession leading to countless raids on the Cook Islands goal. Desperate to equalise however, it left them exposed at the back – in the 81st minute, 17-year-old Charlie Noovao-Martin dispossessed a defender before laying it off to Rimene-Albrett in the box, however his shot was smothered by Otukulo who raced off his line.

Tonga’s chances of mounting a late fightback took a significant hit deep into stoppage time when Vai Lutu was shown a red card with minutes remaining.

Cook Islands: 1 (Taylor SAGHABI 39′)
Tonga: 0

HT: 1-0