New Zealand have secured a return to the world stage after stepping up in the semi-final to beat Tahiti 4-1 and book tickets to the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru.
Having won the past six editions of the OFC U-16 Championship, including beating Tahiti in a penalty shootout in 2015, New Zealand were favourites going into this encounter.
However having seen them completely outclassed by the Solomon Islands during the group stage would have given Tahiti some confidence.
That was shaken early on though when New Zealand took a quick free kick, catching Tahiti on the back foot and allowing Oskar Van Hattum to open the scoring in just the second minute.
Conceding so early rattled the Group B winners as they struggled to comprehend going behind so soon, while also having to adjust their approach to chasing down their opponent’s lead rather than just managing the game as they might have hoped to do.
New Zealand sensed the upset and kept the pressure on the Tahitians which eventually resulted in Henry Hamilton adding a second to the tally in the 13thminute to give the New Zealanders a sense of comfort.
Hamilton had his brace by the 24thminute and it looked very much like the in-control Kiwis would be joining Solomon Islands in Peru next year.
Tahiti however, are not a side to give up lightly and despite being down by three goals within the first 30 minutes kept the intensity high, and the pressure on their opponents as they battled to find a way back into the match.
Although Tehotu Gitton, and Ariiura Labaste had their chances, they just weren’t accurate enough to ever really trouble Luca Taylor.
Sofiene Boukrouma had an outstanding first half acting as a playmaker in midfield for the Tahitians, but that also made him a target for New Zealand who eventually put in one physical challenge too many which forced Tahiti coach Hermann Aurentz to replace the youngster at half-time.
The second half saw Tahiti starting to look more comfortable amongst themselves, with some great strings of passes pieced together in the middle, but they struggled to find that killer final pass.
Eventually they managed to break down the solid New Zealand backline as a Tekaki Sangue lifted the ball over the wall, before it dipped under a diving Taylor to give Tahiti their first of the match.
New Zealand responded immediately pushing into the Tahiti penalty area where they had a player brought down and a penalty awarded.
Matt Garbett stepped up and sent Capel diving to the left, while he slotted to the right to take New Zealand out of reach with a 4-1 lead.
Having indicated prior to the match that we had yet to see the best of his squad, New Zealand coach Jose Figueira said the players got close with today’s performance.
“I think we did see the best of them, or at least very close to it,” he said.
“Obviously I’m delighted to make that qualification and I think the biggest thing is just the personality of the boys today in a really big game, with what they’ve experienced so far and to put on a performance like that was just top class.”
It wasn’t quite the same jubilant outlook from Tahiti coach Hermann Aurentz at the final whistle.
“It’s been a good journey. Congratulations to New Zealand who were able to take advantage of a couple of moments at the beginning of the match to score, and we just weren’t able to come back and weren’t able to finish our chances in front of goal,” Aurentz said.
“We played well but we weren’t vigilant on the field, we didn’t play as a team in terms of ball recovery and that all costs you at this level.
“We’ll prepare now for the third place match and just try to take that third place back to Tahiti.”