Goals either side of halftime against the Cook Islands have sent Fiji into the semi-finals of the OFC U-17 Championship 2023. The 3-0 win means they will face the winner of New Zealand and Vanuatu on Wednesday, back at HFC Bank Stadium in Suva.
The quarter-final was played in hot and sticky conditions, with the temperature at 30 degrees at kickoff.
Both coaches, Sunil Kumar of Fiji and Tahiri Elikana of the Cooks, had instructed their sides to keep it conservative early. It took until the 10 minute mark before there was a real chance, coming from the boot of Cooks defender Shane Tuteru. His shot from outside the box was taken by goalkeeper Ilisoni Koro but it served as a warning that the Cooks were not going to be afraid to have a dig from distance.
Fiji answered back with their best chance of the half 10 minutes later, when Prashant Kumar found space on the right edge. His cross to Neeraj Sharma after 20 mins was headed well, but just sailed over the bar.
Dallas Rongokea was prominent for the Cooks in midfield, with a couple of long ball attempts almost paying off.
Some solid defending in the box by Stanley Tutai snuffed out another chance for Fiji, however their tactic of sending it forward through the air wasn’t resulting in any success at the other end of the field.
It was all looking set to be the first scoreless half of the tournament, till the deadlock was shattered in dramatic fashion in stoppage time. Watisoni Batirerega was given enough room to dribble into the box and got a shot off that looked to be well covered by Cooks goalkeeper Teina Ngametua. Unfortunately, Ngametua lost control of the ball and it was pounced on by Petero Maivalenisau, who tapped it in to make it 1-0.
If coach Kumar was happy with the way his side finished the first half, he would have been delighted at the way they started the second. More good pressure led to a free kick on the corner of the penalty area, which Delon Shankar stepped up and almost curled directly in over a diving Ngametua. The ball ricocheted off the cross bar and bounced straight off Dwayne Matapo, who really couldn’t have got out of the way at all.
The goal made the job seemingly out of reach for the Cooks, who by that stage were struggling to find any inroads into the well organised Fijian defence.
Tempers flared in the 65th minute, after what looked to be a strong but fair challenge by Jeremiah Williams on Aron Naicker that roused a reaction from the Fijians. Both sides raced in to face each other off and the scuffle resulted in three yellow cards being shown to Shankar, Maivalenisau and Isimeli Gavidi of Fiji and one to Tuteru of the Cooks. The chippiness didn’t end there, with Kumar booked as well shortly after.
Fiji enjoyed the majority of possession thereafter, closing the game out against a brave Cooks side that just found it too tricky to unlock to get the ball past halfway. The lead became three just before the end, when Maivalenisau cleaned up a goal mouth scramble created by some excellent work by Kumar down the wing.
While it was a good result for Fiji, they will be concerned at the number of cards they’ve accumulated in the last two games. Their discipline will need to improve by the middle of the week to give themselves the best chance of progressing through to the final.
FIJI 2 (Petero MAIVALENISAU 45+2’, 90+3, Dwayne MATAPO OG 50’)
COOK ISLANDS 0