New Zealand have notched up their third win from as many matches, overcoming a determined Solomon Islands in a thrilling encounter to conclude Group A the OFC Men’s Qualifier tournament in Suva’s ANZ Stadium.
In the earlier kick-off Samoa have left their best till last by claiming a comprehensive victory over their neighbours American Samoa to end their campaign on a high note.
New Zealand 4-2 Solomon Islands
Although New Zealand and Solomon Islands have already booked their places in next week’s semi-finals in Lautoka, both teams were keen to make a statement when they faced each other to decide top spot in their pool.
And the fireworks went off inside the opening minute as Batram Suri’s charges took an ealy lead courtesy of Patrick Taroga’s close range effort to the delight of the vocal and passionate crowd dominated by Suva’s sizeable Solomon Islands community.
Augustine Waita should have doubled his side’s advantage in the 34th minute, following a lovely set up by Darold Kakasi, but the chance went begging when he blasted his shot over the crossbar from only a few yards in front of an empty net.
Waita’s miss proved costly as New Zealand replied with two goals in quick succession thanks to Clayton Lewis who showed great composure and perfect placement from outside the box, before providing the assist to Myer Bevan whose well struck drive turned the game into the Kiwis’ favour before the break.
Noah Billingsley has seemingly settled New Zealand nerves by heading home to open up a two-goal cushion after the restart, but the Solomon Islanders weren’t finished yet, as they reignited the contest with Tuita Maeobia’s sublime strike into the roof of the net with ten minutes remaining.
With time running out, Myer Bevan missed a golden opportunity to put the result beyond any doubt by sending his shot wide from close range, before popping up at the right place to make amends and seal the win with a cool and calm finish in injury time.
New Zealand coach Des Buckingham thought the match was a fitting finale to the group stages in Suva.
“It was an excellent game, I thought the two teams were trying to play football, what a fantastic game for people to watch,” he enthused after the match.
“Solomon Islands are so enjoyable to watch and they have some really good players,” he added.
Buckingham also heaped praise on his own players who displayed their fighting spirit to come back after suffering an early set-back.
“It was great to see them coming from behind, after going a goal down to continue to work and get back themselves into the game and end up winning, it’s a fantastic thing for them,” the New Zealand coach said.
Meanwhile his Solomon Islands counterpart Batram Suri had mixed feelings after his side’s defeat.
“I’m so disappointed especially because we were leading early on but couldn’t maintain that lead, they came back and turned it around, but that’s football. On the other hand, I’m still very proud with the way the boys worked and the all effort they put into the game,” he explained.
Solomon Islands will now meet either Fiji or Vanuatu in the semi-finals and could potentially face New Zealand again in the title decider if they both able to secure their passage through to the final.
And Suri is hoping this match was a just a dress rehearsal for the main event.
“Good test for the semis, it was a test of character and I hope we meet again, maybe in the final, who knows,” the Solomon Islands coach said.
American Samoa 0-5 Samoa
In the day’s opening match Samoa cruised past their Pacific cousins American Samoa to sign off from the tournament on a positive note.
With bragging rights and pride on the line for these two Pacific rivals and cousins, neither sets of players needed any extra motivation to give all they had.
American Samoa was presented with the first real opportunity of scoring thanks to an indirect freekick just 5 metres in front of goal that awarded for a back-pass to Samoa keeper Eti Fatu, but the opportunity was wasted by Michael Settle who pushed his attempt wide.
Samoa took advantage of that miss minutes later with Michael Tumua Leo lobbing the ball over Hengihengi Ikuvalu, with the American Samoa keeper stranded at the front post.
Osa Savelio smashed home with a half volley just minutes later and Ronnie Bourne added another in the 39th minute to give Samoa a comfortable lead going into the sheds at half-time.
Samuelu Malo extended the lead following a pass from Michael Tumua Leo, which was helped on its way with a clever dummy from Vaa Taulai, to end the contest midway through the second half before Tumua Leo grabbed his second of the match to seal the win with a good finish.
Samoa coach Desmond Edward was pleased to end the tournament with a convincing win.
“Yes I’m very happy because we won and the boys really put some effort int to their last game,” he said.
“I was pleased with our attacking play and control but we could have finished more of our opportunities. I’m also proud of the way the boys defended when they needed to and I’m happy that we didn’t let American Samoa score,” Edward added.
Meanwhile American Samoa coach Stephen Settle admitted his side was beaten by a better team.
“In the first two games against Solomons and New Zealand there was a big size difference and a speed of play difference, today we were able to come out of our defensive shape and try to compete with Samoa, but they had too much of quality,” he explained.
“I was proud of a lot of the things that we did, we controlled some possession. We created some opportunities, I felt like maybe if we could have converted that indirect freekick early on maybe we could have had some more momentum but the boys played some good football today.
“There is something special about when ever these two nations compete, it’s really tough on the field but at the end of the game you could see the brotherhood between the two countries. And it’s special to see it at the end,” Settle added.