New Caledonia and tournament hosts Vanuatu both enjoyed opening wins in Group A of the 2016 OFC U-20 Championship in Port Vila on Saturday.
Vanuatu toppled defending champions Fiji 1-0 in a tense affair thanks to Godine Tenene’s 61st minute strike, while New Caledonia battled back from a goal down to eventually run out 4-1 winners over Papua New Guinea.
While they now top the group on goal difference, New Caledonia were on the heels midway through the first half when Papua New Guinea’s impressive forward Giwi Simon caught Pothin Poma in possession and teed up Alu Awi for the game’s opening goal.
New Caledonia lived dangerously in the remainder of the first half but found reward for an energetic start to the second when Albert Watrone combined skill with tenacity and squeezed in a 56th minute equaliser past the beaten keeper and a retreating defender.
Thomas Gope Fenepej gave New Caledonia the lead from penalty spot just over ten minutes later, and Pothin Poma made amends for his earlier transgression with an expertly placed freekick to extend the advantage with eight minutes remaining.
Substitute Warren Houala put extra gloss on the result with New Caledonia’s fourth deep into time added on.
New Caledonia’s coach Kamali Fitealeata said his team could now move on to their next match against Fiji with increased confidence.
“It’s good to begin with a win in our first match and it gives us great motivation going into our second match on Tuesday,” he said.
Meanwhile, Papua New Guinea’s Peter Gunemba was rueing what might have been.
“It is very disappointing,” said Gunemba.
“I think we lost composure in the second half and went to sleep. If we had played the same way as we had in the first half I think we could’ve limited their chances and scored more ourselves. We still had a couple of good chances in the second half and if we had put those away it would’ve been a completely different game.”
In front of a boisterous home crowd that had steadily built ahead through the day, Vanuatu and Fiji went toe to toe in a largely even and often physical affair. Vanuatu enjoyed some ascendancy in patches of the first half, keeping Fijian goalkeeper Jovilisi Borisi busy, but still needed a crucial save from Willie Dick in the dying stages of the match to secure all three points.
“The boys are doing well,” said Vanuatu coach Etienne Mermer.
“Fiji are a good side and physically strong but I believed with the way we play we could win the game.”
Fijian coach Yogendra Dutt said his side would need to regroup after their opening defeat but had already identified a two areas to improve.
“We gave away a lot of possession and that was the difference. We had chances but we missed them and that’s what happens. They had one and they scored but we had a few that and we didn’t take them.”
Group A resumes on Tuesday when New Caledonia face Fiji in the noon kickoff and Vanuatu take on Papua New Guinea at 3pm.
In Group B matches on Saturday in Santo, New Zealand saw off Cook Islands 3-0 while Tahiti and Solomon Islands drew 2-2.