Both New Zealand and Solomon Islands remain on track in their quests to secure Oceania’s only spot on offer at next year’s Tokyo Games following today’s thrilling semi-final double header at the OFC Men’s Olympic Qualifier tournament in Fiji.
On their way to the title decider, the New Zealanders have ended Fiji’s Olympic dream with a commanding performance, before Solomon Islands edged past a 10-men Vanuatu to book their spot in Saturday’s Final, which will be a rematch of the two sides’ entertaining Group A clash from last week that finished in a 4-2 win in favour of the Kiwis.
New Zealand 6-1 Fiji
New Zealand’s have cruised into the title decider on the back of a convincing and professional performance against the hosts in stifling conditions at Lautoka’s Churchill Park.
The Des Buckingham-coached side signalled their attention from the outset by controlling both territorial and ball possession, putting the Fijian defence under plenty of pressure.
Liberato Cacace and skipper Logan Rogerson looked particularly lively during the early exchanges, and it was the New Zealand captain who created his side’s opening goal by showing good composure inside the box before sending in a dangerous cross which was turned into his own net by Fijian defender Scott Mara in the 15th minute.
Fiji keeper Mohammed Alam’s outstretched leg prevented Ben Waine doubling the Kiwis’ advantage two minutes later, but the New Zealand striker soon made up for his miss with a lovely left-footed finish from a Cacace cross.
Waine turned provider setting up Rogerson for New Zealand’s third before Myer Bevan added another with a cool finish at the end of a sweeping New Zealand move just before the break.
Fiji have created a number of opportunities after the restart with skipper Kishan Sami flashing juts wide with a low drive before Bruce Hughes’ left-footed attempt sailed past the crossbar.
The hosts wasted another chance with Scott Wara putting wide a rebound from New Zealand keeper Cameron Brown, who did well to keep out a well struck drive from Joeli Ranuti just seconds before.
Bevan couldn’t connect cleanly in front of goal at the other end, and Fiji took full advantage of his miss by pulling a goal back courtesy of substitute Mohammed Shan with 15 minutes left on the clock.
However, New Zealand substitute Callan Elliot restored his sides four-goal cushion after picking up a pass from Waine to beat Alam with a lovely finish.
Alam produced a save to deny Bevan in a one-on-one situation and soon Fiji was reduced to ten-men following a red card for Akeimi Ralulu for a second bookable offence.
Myer Bevan had the final say in the match by sealing the convincing win for New Zealand with a lovely back-hill deep into injury time.
Des Buckingham couldn’t hide his delight with New Zealand’s clinical display, especially in the hot and sticky conditions in Lautoka.
“It was tough, 32 degrees with a 12 o’clock kick off, very trying but full credit to our playing group, for them for what they did, especially in the first half we they have done enough,” he said.
“The second half was a little bit scrappy, but we have done enough in the first half, and for them to continue working in this kind of heat and this kind of humidity was a real win for us, and it’s important now for us to recover for the final,” added the New Zealand coach.
Buckingham admitted he would have liked to finish the game without conceding but he insists it’s no major cause for concern.
“It’s no problem with the firepower we have going forward, but we want clean sheets, of course we do,” he explained.
“Maybe the heat played some part in their goal,” he laughed.
“But we have more than enough, and we will spend the next couple of days looking at those areas but there is nothing big, just a few decisions that need to be improved.
“Our focus was always on arriving in the final, and scoring goals and they have done that with 28 goals in four games.
We also wanted to play well and we have shown that over the four games, we got better and we just want to arrive in the final better again,” Buckingham added.
Meanwhile his Fijian counterpart Marika Rodu admitted New Zealand deserved their victory.
“The gap remains between us and New Zealand and we need to patch this gap in the near future, but the work that has been done by New Zealand is marvellous,” he said.
“We anticipated the game well, we know New Zealand will be New Zealand, we tried our best to fight a good fight. The idea was to keep the game scoreless in the first half, we wanted to use the heat to our advantage, unfortunately they got behind us and we paid dearly for that,” the Fiji coach explained.
“In the second half, it was a bit better and we managed to create some chances when we had possession.
They didn’t panic they were more into the game.
“Despite so many goals conceded, we continued to press and we took our chance and we scored one,” Rodu added.
Vanuatu 0-1 Solomon Islands
Electrifying atmosphere greeted Melanesian rivals Vanuatu and Solomon Islands onto the pitch in the day’s second semi-final, and both sets of players responded to the cheers of their vocal and passionate supporters with a fast and furious opening.
Vanuatu shaded possession in the early stages with darting runs on the right by Bethuel Ollie, and threatening set-pieces deliveries from Ronaldo Wilkins.
However, the first real chance of the game fell to the Solomon Islands with Augustine Waita volleying over the crossbar from close range in front of goal.
Harold Nauania produced a fantastic save to deny Claude Aru one-on-one at the other end, before Frank Kabui tried his luck from distance with a well struck drive, only to watch his attempt narrowly clearing the crossbar as a result of a deflection from a Vanuatu defender.
Kabui kept pressing forward, and he was at hand to assist his side’s 37th minute opener with a short pass inside the box to set up Waita who calmly slotted past Daniel Alick giving Solomon Islands the lead going into the break.
Vanuatu’s task of finding an equaliser got much tougher in the 52nd minute following a straight red card to Tasso Jeffrey for a dangerous tackle on Patrick Taroga.
Using their numerical advantage, Darold Kakasi came close with a curling shot over the crossbar before Taroga smashed his shot against the post as the Solomon Islanders looked to put the result beyond doubt.
Despite playing with 10-men, Etienne Mermer’s troops kept knocking on the door, and Bong Kalo almost levelled the scores with a shot just inches wide of the post, before an attempt deep into injury time by Jason Thomas went agonisingly close to the target.
At the end however, Batram Suri’s men have managed to hold on to their slender lead and set up date with New Zealand in the title decider to the delight of their relieved coach.
“I’m so very happy with the result but in terms of the performance there is still a lot to do,” he said.
“Vanuatu are very good and they have a lot of good players and a very good coach with them too, most of their players have already experienced a (U-20) World Cup and they are confident too and we always have a good rivalry with them so I expected a tough contest like that,” the Solomon Island coach explained.
Suri also admitted the red card dished out to Vanuatu did help his side’s cause.
“Yes it was crucial, but I thought despite the red card we had to play our own style, and they pushed us and it felt like we played against 11 players, but yes it was crucial for us,” he added.
Meanwhile, despite his side’s disappointing exit, Vanuatu coach Etienne Mermer heaped praise on his players’ fighting spirit.
“It’s hard to explain, we came into this match wanting to win it but we didn’t manage to do it, but it’s life we couldn’t come back,” he lamented.
But I want to congratulate the boys, they played really well, they played good football today, and we managed to play with ten men and still managed to have ball possession and managed to put the Solomons under pressure.
“We played well, we just couldn’t score and it’s really disappointing for us, but good luck to the Solomons team in their final match,” the Vanuatu coach added.