Regional pride and bragging rights were on the line for the four Oceania teams that got the action underway on the opening day at the inaugural OFC Youth Development Tournament, and the emerging stars of Pacific football didn’t disappoint.
Tahiti edged past Group A rivals Papua New Guinea while New Caledonia took early control of Group B with a convincing win over hosts Vanuatu at the historic six-team, inter-Confederation event at Port Vila’s Korman Stadium.
Tahiti 2-1 Papua New Guinea
Following an evenly contested but cautious start by both sides, Papua New Guinea have created the first real chance courtesy of some enterprising individual play by Renagi Ila who used his speed to pass his defender before flashing wide of the post with a low, left-footed drive from the edge of the box in the 15th minute.
Papua New Guinea kept dominating both territorial and ball possession, showing glimpses of their attacking prowess, however they were restricted to a few speculative long-range attempts by the well organised Tahitian defence during the early exchanges.
After absorbing some pressure it was Tahiti’s turn to threaten through Ariiura Labaste whose shot bounced back off the post at the end of a lovely move and a perfectly timed through ball by his skipper Tehauarii Holozet in the 32nd minute.
Less than five minutes later at the other end, Jason Wadunah timed his run perfectly to find himself one-on-one with Mael Williams before beating the Tahitian keeper with a cool left-footed finish to give his side the lead.
However deep into injury time, the dangerous Labaste ensured the two sides went into the break on level terms as he tapped in from close range to punish the Papua New Guinean defenders who failed to deal with an incoming corner.
Tehotu Gitton came close to giving Tahiti the lead following the restart with a shot from inside the box that narrowly missed its target.
In the 57th minute the impressive striker was again involved with some skilful play on the right before setting up the unmarked Tonitini Chung who made no mistake by driving past goalkeeper Andrew Baniau to give the Tahitians the lead.
Anthony Pakakota’s men pressed forward searching for the equaliser but their best efforts were thwarted by Tahitian gloveman Mael Williams who was growing in stature and confidence at the centre of his side’s defence as the game progressed.
The game has become wide open in the final 15 minutes offering both sets of players plenty of space to attack, but neither side was able to create any meaningful opportunities as Tahiti held on to all three points to draw first blood in Group A.
New Caledonia 3-1 Vanuatu
Lues Waya’s 5th minute free kick, just sailing over the Vanuatu crossbar, was the most noteworthy contribution during the early exchanges of the day’s second match between New Caledonia and the hosts.
Waya shaved James Chilia’s woodwork again with a well taken volley before Jacques Watrone gave Les Cagous a deserved lead with a low drive from the edge of the box in the 17th minute.
New Caledonia came close to extend their lead ten minutes later, and once more it was Waya who found himself in a goalscoring position before narrowly missing the target with his header.
Vanuatu battled hard to stay in the match and luck was on their side in the 40th minute when Jimmy Waunie’s powerful header crashed against Chilia’s post to restrict the lead of their francophone opponents to a single goal at the break.
Les Cagous flexed their muscles from the outset of second half and it took less than two minutes to double their advantage courtesy of Luc Pougin whose left-footed shot from inside the box hit the base of the right post before bouncing over the line and into the net on the opposite side.
Looking to put the result beyond any doubt, Felix Tagawa’s troops poured forward with Yoan Bearune testing Chilia but to their credit the hosts remained resolute in defence to keep their rivals at bay until the very last moments of the match.
The pressure however took its toil in injury time as Alan Hnaweo made it 3-0 after beating two defenders and rounding up the keeper to slot home.
There was still time for a late twist with Armando Ravo heading home from a free kick at the other end to give the local supporters something to cheer about and his team something to take away and work with ahead of their next match.
On Sunday’s Match Day 2, Papua New Guinea will face European representatives Estonia in Group A, while host Vanuatu will test themselves against their Group B rivals India from the Asian Confederation.