New Zealand battled back from a goal behind to secure a 3-1 win over New Caledonia and with it their place in the final of the OFC U-20 Championship – as well as a coveted berth at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea 2017.
New Zealand captain Clayton Lewis was almost lost for words at the full-time whistle knowing he would be heading off to his second consecutive U-20 World Cup.
“It’s emotional,” he said.
“Coming into this tournament and being named captain is obviously a privilege and an honour and to all the boys – big ups, we got there in the end.”
The first semi-final of the OFC U-20 Championship kicked off in Luganville Soccer Stadium this morning between a side that has five titles behind it and another chasing a place at their first ever FIFA tournament.
A powerful volley from New Zealand’s leading goalscorer Myer Bevan was only just punched away by the opposing goalkeeper Michel Ulile in just the fourth minute. But New Caledonia answered back with a keeper testing effort of their own when a corner was whipped in for Michael Woud to punch clear.
Then it was all on as New Caledonia took the lead on the 19th minute mark through Cyril Nyipe who absolutely hammered a set piece into the back of the net to open the scoring.
The celebrations, as they so often are against New Zealand, were short-lived as an organised attack four minutes later saw Moses Dyer beat the defender and dinked past Ulile.
The game started getting away from Les Cagous as New Zealand increased the pressure in what was already a fast-paced match. A poorly thought-through pass back from Patrick Gohe when there was no-one behind them was the start of a forgettable passage of play for his side.
The corner was delivered in front of the goal mouth to a waiting mass of players from both sides. It pin-balled around before finally finding its way over the goal line by the defending team.
Bryan Ausu looked like he was through on goal following the restart only to be helped off his feet by Reese Cox. It was prime position for New Caledonia to pull themselves back in line however they could only manage to hit the wall.
The ten minutes leading into the break were a messy period for both sides that saw five cautions handed out by referee Kader Zitouni. Coming into the second period New Zealand appeared revitalised and keen to get a decent cushion between them and their opponents.
Lucas Imrie and Bevan made some great counter attacks with the latter’s solo efforts especially impressive. The niggly challenges continued and with them the came three more yellow cards.
In the 71st minute New Zealand all but sealed their place at Korea 2017 when another own goal sent them 3-1 up. Despite continuing to try and get something more from the match, that final goal signalled the end for the Caledonians as New Zealand had an answer for everything they tried.
“We have to take our hat off to New Zealand, they’re a great side,” conceded New Caledonia coach Kamali Fitialeata.
“They’re a big side, in reputation and also in stature, and that height really caused us problems today.
“The pressure on the players is new to these players and I hope that one day we’ll be smiling at the end of one of these games. But unfortunately it takes a lot of disappointments like this first.”
His counterpart Darren Bazeley, like captain Lewis, is off to his second consecutive U-20 World Cup with this victory and said it’s a great honour.
“I’m really pleased. It’s been quite a long journey to get here and you know, it hasn’t been easy.
“It wasn’t easy again today. We went a goal behind and the boys have had to dig deep and that showed great character.
“I think we dominated the game again and created a lot of chances. These teams, they are good teams and I think if you give them something to hold onto, they have something to fight for and it was important that we got back straight away.”
New Zealand are now preparing for the final of this competition and while they’re already through to Korea 2017 they won’t be taking their foot off the accelerator for that one last match here in Vanuatu.
“We’re not really too fussed about who we meet, either would be cool,” he said.
“If it’s the Sollys then we’ve played them and we know them, but if it’s Vanautu how cool would that be? To play against the home nation in Port Vila it would be a big crowd, so that would be exciting.
“It’s a bit of a cliché but we’ll deal with whoever comes through.”
The second semi-final in Port Vila between Vanuatu and Solomon Islands is still underway with the teams locked at 1-1 going into the half-time break.
The final will be at Port Vila Stadium on Saturday 17 September at 2.30pm (VUT).