Defending champion New Zealand made a strong start to their OFC U-16 Championship campaign today as they outplayed a determined Vanuatu side to claim an 8-0 win in the opening game of the competition at Lawson Tama Stadium in Honiara.
Hosts Solomon Islands opened their campaign with a 5-0 win over Papua New Guinea in front of an expected huge crowd in the day’s later kick-off.
It was a nervy opening 10 minutes for both the host side and their neighbours Papua New Guinea as the struggled to get the ball under control with the slippery surface conditions.
Papua New Guinea had some long-range attempts in the early exchanges, while Solomon Island captain Charles Mani missed two golden opportunities with only the goalkeeper to beat.
The breakthrough for Solomon Islands still arrived pretty early on as Raphael Le’ai marked his birthday with a perfect gift – the opening goal of the tournament for Solomon Islands and his first as an international footballer.
Mani’s initial shot rebounded perfectly for Le’ai to tap in from close range 12 minutes into the match.
The young Kapuls regrouped after conceding and went in search of a goal of their own, but the home side had other ideas.
Steward Saru was brought down in the box after a good run and Le’ai stepped up to convert from the spot.
The Solomon Islands dual international completed his birthday hat-trick to hand the hosts a 3-0 lead at the break.
Papua New Guinea had some good opportunities in the second half to score but good defending from Leon Kofana and Javin Wae kept them at bay.
Despite the downpour in the later stages of the second half Chris Satu and Le’ai managed to score as the hosts walked away with a 5-0 win over their Melanesian neighbors.
Solomon Islands coach Stanley Waita said the pressure of playing at home get hold of his players in the opening minutes of the encounter.
“We started off a bit slow which we were not supposed to do,” he said.
“We wanted to play a high intensity game but we managed to come back with a goal which gave us confidence.
“For the boys this is there first time to play in front of a big crowd and they’re all a bit nervous. For me, well done to my boys and I give credit to PNG for coming hard during the game.”
Waita congratulated Le’ai for his five-star performance to mark an auspicious occasion.
“As expected Raphael has done extremely well today, I told him in the dressing room that today is his birthday and he need to do something to give him a birthday present.
“So today, he did what we wanted”, Waita added.
Papua New Guinea coach Anthony Pakakota gave credit to the hosts but insisted that lack of concentration from his players contributed to the result.
“Solomon was too good and too clinical in the first half,” he said.
“We stood and watched them, let them play and they were able to get those quick goals in. In this kind of tournament, you let goals in, you start slow, it will be difficult to get back into the match.
In the day’s early match Vanuatu struggled to settle into the pace set by New Zealand nor were they particularly comfortable with the Lawson Tama surface when wet.
It took the Kiwis just nine minutes to strike through Ryan Verney, who added a second in the 24thminute. That was quickly followed by a goal for Bradley Wilson before Henry Hamilton added a brace of his own to give New Zealand a 5-0 lead going into half-time.
Oskar Van Hattum struck twice in the second half – the first from the spot before an impressive 76thminute free kick, before substitute Joseph Lee closed out the day’s work with a goal in added time.
New Zealand coach Josè Figueira was happy with the win in the side’s first international hit-out.
“I think the pitch suited the way we want to play which allowed us to move the ball around and resulted in us getting couple of goals against a really organised Vanuatu early on,” Figueira said.
“The rain with the cool weather conditions really suited us and boosted our confidence and we are delighted for our win.
“We are really happy to be here a few days but it is always difficult getting used to the surroundings and also a new experience for the boys but I am delighted with the personality shown by the players to dominate the game which is a great start for us,” he concluded.
Vanuatu coach Joel Rarua was disappointed the effort put on by his players in the first half, but was happy with how they picked things up in the second period.
“We were expecting the boys to perform the way we planned but the boys found it a bit difficult against the defending champion,” Rarua explained.
“I believe our strategies went well for us in the second half where we managed to hold them back in their own half but we need more work on our finishing off and hope to bounce back with a win against Papua New Guinea in our next match.”