All four Group A teams had to make do with a share of the points this evening after Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu drew 3-3, before a late strike saw New Caledonia snatch a 1-1 draw with hosts Tahiti at the OFC U-17 Championship.
Once again Stade Mahina was alight with the backing the home crowd as the Francophone derby more than lived up to expectations.
Michel Clarque’s mini-Cagou were a much-improved side compared with their opening performance in the competition – well-timed, one touch passes and greater consistency across the park.
But Tahiti too were a more cohesive outfit making for a dramatic, fast-paced encounter. Captain Moana Pito was on-form and leading from the back with some impressive saves.
At the other end of the field it was the defensive line doing the work to protect their keeper Une Kecine from too much action with Yann Vivi on a mission to add to his overall goal tally.
With just a few seconds left in the half Tahiti won a corner which Kalahani Beaumert took. He sent a short pass to the front post, received it back before weaving through the defence and unleashing an unstoppable shot.
It wasn’t a particularly pleasant end to the half for New Caledonia but they came strong out of the break determined to right the injustice of the late goal.
They were duly rewarded with a late opportunity of their own when Tahiti goalscorer Beaumert made a challenge on the edge of his box to earn a yellow card – which sees him suspended for Tahiti’s final group game – and hand New Caledonia a free kick in prime territory.
Robert Caihe got on the end of the free kick to put it past Pito and earn his side a reprieve.
Tahiti coach Patrice Flaccadori was far from pleased with the performance of his team.
“The game started well even if it was a little complicated to get into at first because New Caledonia were ready for every duel,” he said.
“Some players carried the ball too long and that kind of thing is unacceptable.”
However if Flaccadori looks for something positive from the match he admits the work done by the team to score was exactly as they’d practiced.
“We worked on this strategy to score and it panned out well for us to night. After that it was up to us to play simpler football, to hold our lead and play to the end but unfortunately we just weren’t capable of that tonight.”
It was a completely different feeling in the New Caledonia camp as far as Clarque was concerned given his side snatched a draw at the last moment.
“I think we definitely gave fans back home a scare with tonight’s performance. I mean I’ve almost lost my voice from yelling so much,” he said.
“The goal we conceded felt like an injustice given how late it was in the half, so it was kind of liberating to do the same thing in the second half.
“I think we can be proud of what the player achieved tonight.”
In the day’s opening encounter, the early pressure came predominantly from Papua New Guinea’s end as they got their Group A match against Vanuatu underway this evening.
After both registered opening losses the emphasis for the two Melanesian nations was a victory and points on the board.
Aben Pukue was the hero for his side when he opened the scoring in the 16th minute that had keeper Joshua Willie beaten.
It wasn’t just a decisive moment for Papua New Guinea as they took the lead, but for their opponents too who lost their first-choice keeper to an injury.
Aben Pukue and Barthy Kerobin wasted no time in giving replacement Dgen Leo a hard time between the sticks with a series of shots that would have had the keeper thankful he warmed up well.
At the other end of the park Abert Vanva joined Dilland Ngwele and Jean-Claude Batick in peppering the Papua New Guinea goal with shots.
They were rewarded for their hustle in the 25th minute when some mis-communication in the goalmouth saw Ngwele register a goal for his side with a toe-poke.
With just a few seconds of additional time remaining ahead of the half-time whistle Papua New Guinea were handed the gift of a penalty.
Converted by Barthy Kerobin, Papua New Guinea had the luxury of a one goal lead coming back for the second half. They may have rested to comfortably on their laurels however as Abert Vanva took advantage of a fumble from the keeper to pull Vanuatu back in line.
For the third time Vanuatu slipped ahead in the 81st minute thanks to Barthy Kerobin who put the finishing touch on a deflected ball. Celebrations were short-lived however as two minutes later Zidane Maguekon’s free kick slipped through Graham Berigami’s hands.
Sharing the points after having had the lead three times during the evening made for a hugely disappointing finish to the afternoon for Harrison Kamake.
“I’m very disappointed because I think it was just a few individual decisions that gave us the result we weren’t really after,” the Papua New Guinea coach said.
“I have to commend my side for the team effort. I was impressed with the ability to switch between the attacking and defending.”
For his counterpart Rocky Neveserveth it was two evenly matched sides which was reflected in the score.
“Papua New Guinea prepared for this match and we also prepared a long time for this match.”
Being able to keep his side motivated in spite of having to come from behind three times was a challenge but one Nerveserveth said his team dealt with well.
“The best part of the game for me was when our young guys scored goals. We spoke a lot about this match and we told them to press, press hard and try and score goals.
“I also told them to focus, keep your heads in the game and remain motivated for the full match. With that approach we were able to get the draw.”