Hosts Vanuatu booked a place in the 2016 OFC U-20 Championship semi-finals with a game to spare thanks to a 3-1 win over Papua New Guinea on match day two in Group A in Port Vila on Tuesday.
The remaining spot on offer to Group A will go down to wire the after a 1-1 draw between New Caledonia and Fiji kept the latter’s hopes alive and delayed New Caledonia’s progression to the playoffs until at least the final group games on Saturday.
Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, who needed at least a point to keep their dream of qualifying for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Korea intact, were goalless at the break but a red card to Papua New Guinea’s Kenneth Pilailo four minutes after the restart changed the complexion of the match.
Ronaldo Wilkins converted the resulting penalty and within six minutes the home side’s skipper, Bong Kalo got the crowd on their feet with a sensational volley to double the lead.
Ten-man Papua New Guinea refused to lay down and when Gabby Yanum bundled the ball over the line from a 77th minute corner, they found reward for their persistence and hope they could get the point they desperately needed.
However Jayson Thomas extinguished those hopes with Vanuatu’s third in the 81st minute, restoring the two-goal buffer and ultimately confirm a victory that sends them into the semi-finals.
Vanuatu’s technical advisor for the campaign and head coach for this match, Declan Edge expressed the joy emanating from a proud home team.
“I’m very happy for the players, the supporters here today and everyone involved in Vanuatu at the moment. It’s great,” Edge.
It could have gone either way to be fair. We took some good chances and Bong scored a terrific goal for the second. It’s football and sometimes it can go either way. We’re just happy to get a good result.”
For Papua New Guinea coach Peter Gunemba there were mixed emotions after another close game that got away.
“We go out happy,” said Gunemba with qualification for a World Cup now off the table.
“We were determined to win this game but we knew it would only be by one goal or something. We knew Vanuatu would write us off after the performance against New Caledonia game. We came with a lot of confidence to win this game but unlucky for us we cost the game ourselves.”
Earlier in the day defending champions Fiji gave themselves a chance of reaching the semi-finals with a 1-1 draw against previous group leader New Caledonia.
A sublime piece of skill from Leroy Jennings, who nutmegged his marker before firing a low shot in off the post, gave Fiji the lead midway through the first half but like they did in their first outing on Saturday, New Caledonia fought back in the second half.
A 68th minute corner was cleared but only as far as Thomas Gope-Fenpej who volleyed in a thunderous equaliser to keep his side in the top two in the Port Vila-based group.
Fiji’s hopes of reaching the semi-finals and having a shot at claiming one of two tickets to next year FIFA U-20 World Cup now rest on his side beating Papua New Guinea on Saturday and New Caledonia falling to Vanuatu in a game that will decide who finishes top of the group.
“We said we would give it our best shot and we did so to earn a point,” said Fiji coach Yogendra Dutt after the match.
“Now we have to prepare for our next game which will determine where we finish in this tournament. So we have to prepare and play to the best of our ability.”
A disappointed New Caledonia coach Kamali Fitealeata sent a clear message to his players.
“I’m not happy because the players did not follow my instructions.”
“The final game against Vanuatu will be very difficult because they are the best team in the group but we will do everything we can to win this game and I hope the players do what we want,” said Fitealeata.
In Group B matches on Tuesday in Santo, New Zealand defeated ten man Tahiti 4-1 to book a semi-final berth and Solomon Islands eventually wore down a resilient Cook Islands to win 3-0.
Group A concludes on Saturday with Fiji facing on Papua New Guinea at noon and New Caledonia squaring off against Vanuatu at 3pm.