Four teams will be vying for two final places on offer as the OFC Men’s Olympic Qualifier tournament reaches its business end with Wednesday’s semi-final double-header at Lautoka’s Churchill Park.
With two fascinating encounters on the menu, New Zealand and hosts Fiji will kick off the day’s proceedings before a mouth-watering clash between Melanesian rivals Vanuatu and Solomon Islands.
Group A winners New Zealand will need to adjust quickly to the conditions in Lautoka after spending the past fortnight in Suva, while the hosts who finished runners up in Group B, will hoping to make the most of their familiarity with Churchill Park following their three previous outings there.
Fiji will look to use any advantage they can muster against an impressive New Zealand outfit which amassed 22 goals and conceded only three to cruise into the semis with maximum 9 points.
Blessed with attacking talent upfront, Des Buckingham’s side includes the tournament’s two leading goal scorers Myer Bevin and Ben Waine as well as the likes of Clayton Lewis and skipper Logan Rogerson, both of whom have also impressed with their finishing prowess.
The Kiwis also boast plenty of big game experience with the vast majority of squad having participated in various U-20 and U-17 FIFA World Cups while coming through the ranks.
Leading up to their knock-out match against Fiji the team morale is high and the players can’t wait to face their next challenge according to the coach.
“The mood is really good, really nice environment, good environment, players are really positive, we have everyone available to us, so we are just really looking forward to playing Fiji,” Des Buckingham said.
Despite the New Zealand coach is happy with his sides performances to date, he insists there is still room for improvement.
“We’ve had three good games in Suva, and we just want to get better going into the semi.
“We want to play well, we have a couple of areas we want to focus on, we have let a couple of goals in the group games we need to tighten up on, but in terms of our playing style we just want to get better and better,” he added.
Playing the hosts will present a special challenge and Buckingham is expecting a stern test from the Fijians.
“It’s always tough to play the hosts, we’ve had this with the U-20 World Cup Qualifier last year in Tahiti , where we played Tahiti as the hosts, once in our group stage and again in the final, it’s nice to be here but to play the hosts will be a bit of challenge and of course they are the current holders of this competition, but we focus on ourselves and we will be ready for the game,” he explained
“We’ve watched all their games we have actually travelled across here for their final group game, so we’ve had the eight hour round trip to see the final group stages, and they have a good team, good players and you can see they are well coached, but we will make sure we are set up and ready and hopefully it will be as good of a game as the Solomons was,” Buckingham said.
Fiji have will go into their semi against New Zealand with the lowest goal tally among the remaining four teams.
After finding the net seven times in their opening two matches against Papua New Guinea and Tonga, Marika Rodu’s men have ended their final Group B match with a 1-nil defeat to Vanuatu.
Despite showing glimpses of their attacking potential by creating a number of good scoring opportunities, the Fijians have been wasteful in the final third apart from Patrick Joseph who had netted three times, and Rodu is keenly aware how costly poor finishing could be against New Zealand.
“Finishing is a constant weakness which was evident in all three games, we have been able to create but it’s the finishing that’s letting us down, but the positive part of it is our ability to create the chances in front of goal,” he said.
“The mentality needs to be settled, everybody needs to understand that we are going to play New Zealand, they are the top team so we need to get past this mental block, New Zealand is a very tough team, very structured and they have been dominating this Oceania region for a while, this is something that is going to be tough to get over but once we get over this mental block, we should be in a space where we can play good football,” Rodu added.
The Fijis coach also believes their home ground advantage is a double-edged sword for his side.
“It’s pressure but at the same time we still need the support of our fans.
“We are very pleased to have this game here in Fiji because this team really needs the backing of the country,” he explained.
Despite the huge task ahead, Rodu insists his players are excited by the prospect of facing the New Zealanders.
“We are looking forward to the challenge if any Oceania team wants to get to the Olympics, they will have to go through New Zealand first, whether it’s the semi-finals or the final we have to get through New Zealand, that’ the reality of the matter. It’s going to be as challenge, a lot of hard work, but Samoa and Solomons have demonstrated that goals can be scored against New Zealand,” The Fiji coach explained.
With 11 players from Vanuatu’s history making team, that alongside New Zealand represented Oceania at the 2017 FIFA U-20 Word Cup, still part of the current U-23 Olympic squad, the Group B winners are a well drilled and experienced unit.
Some of Vanuatu’s key players from 2017, including skipper Jason Thomas, his defensive partner Joseph Iaruel, playmaker Bong Kalo, striker Azariah Soromon and goalkeeper Daniel Alick have all contributed to their side’s march towards the semis and coach Etienne Mermer will again look to them for inspiration when they face the Solomon Islands.
“I’ve got my players who will start in the semis, I don’t think I will make many changes to the team, the most important players will need to take their responsibility against the Solomons on Wednesday,” he explained.
Despite their impressive defensive record that saw them only conceding once in their previous three matches, while scoring 12 times at the other end, the Vanuatu coach insists the Solomon Islands will provide their toughest test yet.
“I watched Solomons’ match against Zew Zealand, they are fast and technically they are good and that’s the way Solomon teams most of the time play, they have a lot of quality on their team but we have also some players who can give them a good challenge and we will see what happens in the semis against them,” Mermer said.
“We know it’s not easy. The tournament is tough, and the closer we are getting to the final stages the tougher and harder it will get for the boys.
“So we need to stay focussed because in the semi-finals it won’t be easy for anybody,” said the Vanuatu coach.
“I know the Solomon Islands will also try their best in the semis, so we will need to get the boys ready for this game.
“The more games we win, the more confident and comfortable we will and the further we want to go,” Mermer added.
Solomon Islands will also have every reason to be confident after three impressive performances that saw them comprehensively defeating Samoa and American Samoa before a narrow loss to New Zealand following a thrilling encounter on the final match day in Suva.
Coach Batram Suri believes the closely contested match against New Zealand was the perfect preparation for the semis.
“Our last game was a test of character for the players to prepare for the semi-finals and we did well against New Zealand, and even though we conceded four goals, we continued to fight and showed we are here to compete,” he said.
Sharing the goal scoring responsibility between Augustine Waita, Adrian Mara, Patrick Taroga and Darold Kakasi, the Solomon Islanders have plenty of attacking outlets that will be called upon to test Vanuatu’s rock solid defence.
And looking ahead to Wednesday’s do-or-die match, Suri is expecting closely contested and tough match.
“I understand most of them played in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Korea so they have more experience and exposers playing international games, we’ve got most of our players that we’ve built up from the U-17 age group, so we also got few experienced players that came through our development pathway in the Solomon Islands and we’ve got speed, skills and technique, and the boys will be well prepared and will be fighting to be in the final,” the Solomon Islands coach explained.
“I have four Vanuatu players from the U-23 team playing in the club which I coached back in Vanuatu and I know well how Vanuatu play.
“They play long and short balls, and they have good quality in the middle and wide areas that can run and they usually play running football which put more pressure on their opponents, but after coaching them and knowing them, I have planned sessions to prepare for the,” Suri added.
SEMI FINAL 1
New Zealand vs. Fiji
Wednesday 2 October
Lautoka, FIJI KO: 12:00
Click on link for the live stream
Referee: David YAREBOINEN (PNG)
Assistant Referee 1: Bertrand BRIAL (NCL)
Assistant Referee 2: Folio MOEAKI (TGA)
Fourth Official: Norbert HAUATA (TAH)
NEW ZEALAND – 1. Cameron BROWN (GK), 2. Jordan SPAIN, 3. Dylan DE JONG, 4. Hunter ASHWORTH, 5. Robert TIPELU, 6. Dane SCHNELL, 7. Myer BEVAN, 8. Jake PORTER, 9. Logan ROGERSON, 10. Clayton LEWIS, 11. Ollie WHYTE, 12. Conor TRACE, 13. Liberato CACACE, 14. Billy JONES, 15. Sean LIDDICOAT, 16. Gianni STENSNESS, 17. Callan ELLIOT, 18. Ben WAINE, 19. Noah BILLINGSLEY, 20. Alex PAULSEN (GK)
Head Coach: Des BUCKINGHAM (ENG)
FIJI – 1. Atunaisa NAUCUKIDI (GK) 2. Shivam NAIDU 3. Jovilisi BORISI (GK) 4. Afraz ALI 5. Ivan KUMAR 6. Zainal ALI 7. Rajniel CHAND 8. Joeli RANITU 9. Mohammed SHAH 10. Bruce HUGHES 11. Tito VODOWAQA 12. Kishan SAMI 13. Savenaca BALEDROKADROKA 14. Akeimi RALULU 15. Arami MANUMANUBAI 16. Sekove FINAU 17. Patrick JOSEPH 18.Scott WARA 19.Peni TUIGULAGULA 20.Mohammed ALAM (GK)
Head Coach: Marika RODU (FIJ)
Vanuatu vs Solomon Islands
Wednesday 2 October
Lautoka, FIJI KO: 15:30
Click on link for the live stream
Referee: Matthew CONGER (NZL)
Assistant Referee 1: Tevita MAKASINI (TGA)
Assistant Referee 2: Mark RULE (NZL)
Fourth Official: Suvikorn PU-UDOM (THA)
VANUATU – 1. Daniel ALICK (GK), 2. Jesse KALOPONG, 3. Waiwo KALMET, 4. Jason THOMAS, 5. Joseph IARUEL, 6. Tasso JEFFREY, 7. Jordy TASIP, 8. Claude ARU, 9. Johnathan SPOKEYJACK, 10. Bong KALO, 11. Azariah SOROMON, 12. Lency Philip, 13. Selwyn VATU, 14. Mole MANSALE, 15. Armando RAVO, 16. Ronaldo WILKINS, 17. Bethuel OLLIE, 18. Jasson TARI, 19. James CHILIA (GK), 20. Joshua WILLIE (GK)
Head Coach: Etienne MERMER (VAN)
SOLOMON ISLANDS – 1. Desmond TUTU (GK), 2. Junior DAVID, 3. John AETA, 4. Aengari GAGAME, 5. William KOMASI, 6. Rodney SURI, 7. Augustine WAITA, 8. Patrick TAROGA, 9. Adrian MARA, 10. Darold KAKASI, 11. Tuita MAEOBIA, 12. Harold NAUANIA (GK), 13. Alick KITALO, 14. Steve MAELASI, 15. George LEAGA, 16. Frank KABUI17. John OGE, 18. Molis Junior GAGAME, 19. Raynick LAETA, 20. Joel NANAGO (GK)
Head Coach: Batram SURI (SOL)