Photo Credit: OFC Media via Tonga FA

A stunning free-kick just minutes from full-time has ensured that Samoa will take their place at the OFC Men’s Nations Cup 2024 in June.

Samoa entered their final match of the tournament against the Cook Islands knowing a win would be enough to clinch qualification after their opening day 4-1 victory over hosts Tonga.

The start of the match was a played at a frantic pace on the wet surface but neither side was able to cut through and assert their dominance as the ball pinged about at an incredible pace.

Played with plenty of intensity, these two nations were relentless in their tackles. Samoa’s Kaleb de Groot-Green felt it firsthand, upended in a tackle by Harlem Simiona, that lead to pushing and shoving from both sides.

The Cook Islands split the Samoan defence open in the 16th minute with Rangi Moore sneaking behind the backline, before turning and shooting, only for the assistant referee to raise his flag and put a halt to proceedings.

The best chance of the half came in the 34th minute for the Samoans. A great cross from Tumua saw Andrew Setefano get his head on to the end of it only for Ngereine Maro to produce a save and deny the captain an opening goal.

Samoa looked threatening at set piece time and just before the break a great free-kick into the box was met by de Groot-Green, who headed just wide, as the first-half ended goalless.

The second-half saw that same intensity reignite in the middle of the field. Samoa’s Xavier Tanielu was yellow carded for lashing out in a tackle in the 49th minute. With tensions raised, a poor tackle from Cook Islands winger Sunai Joseph, saw him red carded minutes later. Subsequent complaints from coach Jess Ibrom saw him also booked by the referee.

Chances had been limited throughout the match for both sides and despite being down to ten men the Cook Islands almost pulled of a stunning goal in the 60th minute. On the counterattack, Tremaine Rimene-Albrett spotted Samoa’s goalkeeper well off his line, launching a shot from half-way that hit agonisingly hit the post.

As time started to tick away opportunities presented themselves at either end. In the 77th minute a sloppy pass back put Cook Islands forward Rimene-Albrett in on goal, but his shot was comfortably collected by Bartley. A minute later, Taualai found himself on the each of the box, his long range effort forcing Maro into a fingertip save.

Since his arrival on the pitch, substitute Taualai had been the team’s bright spark, and he would duly have the final say in the 88th minute. With a free-kick on the left side of the box, the midfielder curled a stunning shot, clipping the inside the far post and nestling in the goal to give his side a decisive lead and qualification for the OFC Men’s Nations Cup 2024 in June.

Samoa: 1 (Vaa TAUALAI 88′)
Cook Islands: 0

HT: 0-0