Local favourites Tupapa Maraerenga FC took a huge step towards booking their ticket to the Group Stage of Oceania’s top club football competition by making it two wins from as many games while the qualification hopes of American Samoa’s Pago Youth are all but over following another thrilling day of action at the 2019 OFC Champions League Qualifier in the Cook Islands.
Samoan outfit Kiwi FC and their Pacific cousins Pago Youth both needed victory to stay in the hunt for one of the two remaining qualifying spots up for grabs as they lined up to face each other in the opening encounter on Match Day 2 of the tournament.
Desperate to amend their disappointing performance against Tupapa in the opening round, Kiwi FC have signaled their intent from the outset by controlling both ball and territorial possession.
Their dominance paid dividends in the 20th minute courtesy of the lively Ken Kerewi, but Samoan celebrations were cut short by Palauni Tapusoa who leveled the scores with Pago Youth’s first meaningful attack only a minute later.
The equaliser seemed to have spurred Kiwi FC on and the Samoan champions were back in front in the 29th minute thanks to Paul Scanlan’s penalty before Kitona Nauer was on target to open up a two goal cushion for his side five minutes later.
Following their 5-1 defeat to Lotoha’apai United on the opening match day, Pago Youth were also playing for their survival, and they showed plenty of passion and pride to get back into the game through another clinical finish from Tapusoa to end a thrilling first half.
After the break both sides threw caution to the wind in their search for a knock-out blow as chances kept coming in a surprisingly open encounter given the high stakes.
With only ten minutes to go the game was on a knife-edge as the impressive Palauni Tapusoa completed his hat-trick to make it 3-all and set up a grandstand finish.
It was no surprise the absorbing contest had one more sting in the tale with the experienced Paul Scanlan delivering the decisive moment by slotting home to notch up his second goal of the match five minutes later.
Kiwi FC Coach Martin Tamasese admitted his side was made to work hard to stay alive in the competition.
“It was a tough game for us, the American Samoans knew our style of play and it was tough, but a win is a win and we are happy with what we’ve got today.
“We were expecting a hard match like this and we had to try really hard but we knew we were fast and fit, but still it didn’t always work our way,” Tamesese said.
His Pago Youth counterpart Rambo Tapui was delighted with his players’ effort despite the defeat.
“It was entertaining, when we clash with Samoa it’s like a war so we came out here to try to win this game, we weren’t playing for a draw.
“In the second half of last game when we’ve played in the last 20 minutes we didn’t have the fitness but in the last few days we worked on that and I told the boys that we will play our brothers from Samoa.
“This competition really talked to their brain and the heart, I’m not sure where the fitness came from but thanks God he gave it to us,” the Pago Youth coach added.
Tapui also heaped praise on hat-trick hero Palauni Tapusoa who left the team straight after the match to rush back to American Samoa and stay by his ailing father’s bedside.
“One of our brothers going back tonight, his dad is in Intensive Care Unit, he scored a hat-trick today so I think his dad was here playing with him, so everything was about him today,” Tapui said.
Cheered on by their vocal home support Tupapa Maraerenga wasted no time to grab the lead in their top of the table clash against Tongan representatives Lotoha’apai United as Jared Colligan latched onto a cross inside the box before netting in the opening minute.
Knowing a win would all but secure a spot in the Group Stage, the hosts kept probing the Tongan’s defence and they were soon rewarded with a penalty which was cooly put away by Ben Mata in the 7th minute.
Despite Tupapa’s relentless dominance the impressive Lotoha’apai keeper Semisi Otukolo played a huge role in keeping the hosts at bay for the remainder of the half before the Tongan champions produced a slick passing move to make it 2-1 against the run of the play two minutes before the break.
A far more evenly contested affair developed in the second half with chances coming thick and fast at both ends before Grover Harmon restored the hosts’ two goal cushion in the 59th minute and Ben Mata put the result beyond any doubt four minutes later.
Any hopes of a Lotoha’apai comeback were dashed with a red card to Sione Uhatahi for a second bookable offence before Ben Mata was also shown a straight red in the 87th minute as both sides finished the match with ten men.
Tupapa players have embraced as the final whistle blew knowing that barring a miracle this victory had booked their place at the next stage of the region’s premier club football competition, while Lotoha’apai is now facing a winner takes all clash with Kiwi FC on the third and final match day if they want to secure the last available place on offer.
Tupapa coach Delaney Yaqona gave plenty of credit to their Tongan opponents.
“We are definitely very happy and all heads off to Lotoha’apai, they came out here and they gave us a good game.
“We had a really good start and things were flowing from there but all credit to them as they came back and stuck into us and we had to pick our game up and do things a bit better to win in the end,” Yaqona explained.
Meanwhile his Fijian compatriot in charge of Lotoha’apai lamented his side’s slow start to the game.
“Those two early goals, they were our downfall today.
“I’m still happy with the performance even though we conceded two goals in the first ten minutes, it was a slow start and we have to accept what the result is,” Lui Muavesi summed up.