New Zealand made a strong start to their first U-20 qualifying campaign in three years with a solid 3-0 win over Cook Islands while Solomon Islands put in an impressive second half performance to draw 2-2 with Tahiti.
New Zealand have not played in the OFC U-20 Championship since 2013 in Fiji, but made an impressive return to the regional stage with a dominant performance over Cook Islands.
But it wasn’t without its challenges as the well organised preliminary winners sat deep, defending with absolute determination to keep their opponents locked out.
New Zealand has a wealth of talent and experience at its disposal with captain Clayton Lewis and midfield colleague Moses Dyer putting in the hard yards.
But the difference today proved to be debutant Myer Bevan who claimed not one but three goals – each of them impressive strikes in their own right.
New Zealand coach Darren Bazeley praised his side’s ability to adapt to the conditions.
“We set out to win the game and did that pretty comfortably. We dominated possession, our back players did very well and they weren’t able to get a shot on goal,” Bazeley said.
“Lots of stuff happened in the game that I would like to be better, our final ball quality for example.
“But the guys have scored three goals, we’ve won the game and kept a clean sheet and dealt with the conditions. Hopefully now we can understand what it’s like to play here, it’s very difficult but we dealt with it well.”
For Cook Islands, avoiding the memory of their previous trip to Santo in 2013 for the OFC U-17 Championship was at the front of their minds and contributed to their approach to the game.
Captain Keegan Inia was integral the turnaround today with a number of key saves leaving his accomplished opponents frustrated.
But it was certainly a team effort for Cook Islanders who were delighted to keep the Kiwis contained at just 1-0 going into the break.
Coach Matt Calcott said they knew it would be a tough match but he’s proud of the way his charges stepped up to face the challenge.
“We’re very happy that we were able to contain the New Zealanders somewhat,” Calcott said.
“We’ve done a lot of out-of-possession work and that showed.
“Obviously a little disappointed we conceded that last goal there, but I can’t fault the boys, they’ve been absolutely fantastic since we came into camp.”
In the second encounter of the afternoon Tahiti leapt into the lead in the 13th minute courtesy of a stunning strike from Marc Seijidr which had the opposing keeper Desmond Tutu well beaten.
That was followed up in the 34th minute by captain Heirauarii Salem whose free kick came pinging off the upright and in behind Tutu to give Tahiti a relatively comfortable 2-0 lead going into the break.
It must have been an inspiring team talk from coach Pedro Mateo as the Solomon Islands came back for the second half with a renewed sense of verve causing immediate problems for their opponents.
The awarding of a penalty in the 48th minute gave the Melanesians a chance to pull themselves into the match and Albert Witney made no mistake in slotting past Tetahio Teriinohopuaiterai.
Fifteen minutes later it was a beautiful strike from Richard Raramo that had the keeper beaten, with the ball just grazing the tips of Teriinohopuaiterai outstretched fingers.
Solomon Islands coach Mateo believes his side were justly rewarded for their second half performance.
“We had a long conversation at half-time although we had good vibes anyway because I think we had a good first half,” Mateo said.
“But we know against good teams like Tahiti, they know what to do and two mistakes – it’s two goals.
“We talked about this and we know our strength is how we treat the ball and how they came back into the game was a real positive for the side today.”
After taking the lead with a high pressing approach in the first half, Tahiti coach Ludovic Graugnard was disappointed his side weren’t able to hold onto the advantage.
“We decided to press the Solomon team especially when out of possession to prevent them from controlling the ball in the way we know they do.
“The first half we won on the field and we were rewarded for the strategy we put in place. The second half however, we conceded two goals following errors from our side and they took advantage of that.
“We were under a lot of pressure on the pitch from Solomon Islands, and from around the stadium as the crowd got behind our opponents and eventually we cracked under that pressure.”
Group B action continues on Tuesday 6 September with Solomon Islands taking on Cook Islands before Tahiti play New Zealand.