Reigning champions New Zealand cruised past Vanuatu to set up a showdown with Les Cagous for the OFC U-19 Women’s Championship crown, after the New Caledonians overcame their francophone rivals Tahiti in a dramatic penalty shoot-out in the day’s opening semi-final at Rarotonga’s CIFA Academy.
Tahiti 0-0 New Caledonia (Tahiti 6-7 New Caledonia after penalties)
With a place in the tournament’s title decider up for grabs, both sides showed signs of nervousness throughout a closely contested but scrappy first half.
Despite some well executed passing combinations and promising link-up plays on display, the entire opening stanza has past without a real threat at either end.
Following the break, Les Cagous playmaker Jackie Pahoa looked increasingly dangerous with a string of well stuck attempts on target.
The pacey Jennifer Neporo offered another attacking outlet to the New Caledonians who began to dominate their opponents.
Luckily for the Tahitians, goalkeeper Corail Harry produced two inspired saves to deny Neporo and substitute Laëtitia Leme, both of whom were clear on goal in one-on-one situations.
With the scores still locked at the end of regulation time, the match was forced into 30 minutes of extra time with Pahoa rattling the crossbar from the edge of the box as theNew Caledonians carried on piling on the pressure.
The impressive Corail Harry kept the French Polynesians in the game by repelling another dangerous Pahoa freekick, before producing a last-gasp save against Neporo who was again clear on goal.
Tahitian substitute Kohai Mai came close to snatching it at the other end with a powerful drive from the right, but Les Cagous keeper Brigitte Wadra was on hand to keep the scores level, sending the tense semi-final into a penalty shoot-out.
New Caledonia skipper Edsy Matao, Tahiti’s Tahia Tamarri, Jackie Pahoa and Babou Tepea were all on target, but Alize Sakilia blinked to give the Tahitians the first advantage.
Kohai Mai, Clarissa Whanapo, Tahitian keeper Corail Harry and Chloe Ufepi have all kept their cool to take the shoot-out to 4-all, before Mihitua Tihoni missed for Tahiti as thetension kept rising.
Cassidy Cawa slotted home to put New Caledonia in the driver’s seat with TiaraTekakioteragi replying, but a miss by Mélissa Iekawe reversed the teams’ fortunes once again, giving Tahiti another chance to advance to the final.
However, with the pressure mounting Lokelani Hauata joined the growing list of players failing to convert.
Ashley Gemma, Kiana Wong and Océane Zasina have carried on scoring as the marathon shoot-out kept going before Tahiti’s Christiane Tetavahi’s spot-kick was saved by Brigitte Wadra to hand Les Cagous their spot in the title decider in the most dramatic fashion.
Coach Coralie Bretegnier couldn’t hide her delight after the tough win.
“I’m very proud of my team, it was a very difficult game, but we just kept going andfighting till the end, I’m so proud,” she enthused.
“We had a lot of opportunities to win it before the game went to penalties, but this is football, and I’m happy with the outcome.
“It was our aim to get to the final, but now that we are there, we remain focussed because our work is not finished yet,” the New Caledonia coach added.
Meanwhile her Tahitian counterpart Stéphanie Spielmann admitted Les Cagous were thebetter team on the day.
“They totally deserve to go through to the final. They fought harder and all throughout thegame, including the extra time,” she said.
“It’s disappointing, but we’ve had great tournament until today. The game today was not the way we play, we don’t usually play like this, we didn’t turn up for this semi-final, andwe are very disappointed about the result,” Spielmann explained.
Vanuatu 0-11 New Zealand
Meanwhile New Zealand have kept their title defence on track with another convincing victory to sweep into the final.
With only five minutes on the clock, Ava Collins found Kelli Brown who hit the crossbar before finishing the rebound from close range.
The Golden Boot favourite grabbed her second to double New Zealand’s advantage with a neat finish from the edge of the box, before Gabi Rennie tapped in for a three goal lead.
Brown completed her hat-trick by pouncing on a ball spilled by Vanuatu keeper Rose Simon, before skipper Maggie Jenkins got her name on the scoresheet to make it 5-nil at the break.
Jenkins wasted a golden opportunity to extend the Kiwis’ lead after failing to convert a penalty she won for her side just minutes into the second half.
However, it mattered little as the New Zealand juggernaut rolled on with Ava Collins volleying home and Brown adding another with a brilliant header.
Grace Wisnewski made it 8-0, before Kelli Brown popped up in the right spot for her fifth of the match and her 20th of the tournament, by following up from Gabi Rennie’s shot coming off the post.
Rennie was replaced by Lara Wall, who made an immediate impact courtesy of a superb strike into the top left corner, before Wisnewski picked out the bottom left corner with a lovely drive to seal another dominant win for the Kiwis.
New Zealand coach Gemma Lewis was pleased with the way her players secured their passage to the title decider.
“It was a semi-final and we wanted to put our stamp on it, and the girls did really well,” she said.
Lewis also had a special mention for her leading striker, before pointing out the contribution the rest of her team makes to keep the goals coming.
“Kelli Brown puts in a lot of goals, she turns up at the right places but in terms of how the ball gets to those positions, it’s a team performance in that regards,” explained the coach.
The New Zealanders are yet to concede in the tournament, but despite the limited amount of challenge they face at the back, Lewis insists the entire defence need to stay focused and ready for their test to come.
“It’s a challenge for them, so we encourage them to get on the ball as much as they can and be involved in plays but yes we’re hoping not to concede in this tournament if we can,” the New Zealand coach said.
Meanwhile, Vanuatu coach Jean Robert Yelou didn’t look for excuses.
“This result is no surprise for me. I knew New Zealand were better technically and physically so they were all over us,” he admitted.
“But it’s good for the girls to reach the semi-finals and play against a team like New Zealand to see where the Vanuatu team is now, especially for the women’s team.
“I’m not making any excuses for the performance, we made it through to semi-finals and that’s a huge achievement for these girls and playing against a team like New Zealand will help them improve more,” added the Vanuatu coach.