A stoppage time penalty was all that separated tournament favourites New Zealand and a very brave Vanuatu (1-0) sending New Zealand into a semi-final against Fiji on Wednesday.
A very hot day in Suva had cooled down by the time the game kicked off, in front of a healthy crowd that made themselves heard in the HFC Bank Stadium stands. It was fair to say most of the cheering was in support of Vanuatu, although there was a vocal contingent of traveling New Zealand fans.
New Zealand were on the backfoot before a ball had been kicked, with Manchester City defender and captain Marley Leuluai ruled out of the tournament with a shoulder injury picked up at training. However, they welcomed back Luka Coveny from injury and Nicholas Murphy took the captain’s armband.
The game began as expected, with New Zealand winning a series of corners that were well defended by a Vanuatu side not shy about getting back and getting physical. They would need to, as the New Zealanders had scored 14 goals in their previous two games.
Murphy picked up a yellow card for a clumsy challenge in the 17th minute, but made up for it with a really nice bit of defensive work on Jimmy Moso after he’d broken away into the box.
Niko Bruce fired off a shot not long after from the top of the area, drawing a great save by Vanuatu goalkeeper Joseph Nakou.
However, the best chance of the whole half was from Vanuatu when Augustine Chilia broke away and had a one on one with Matthew Foord.
The New Zealand goalkeeper kept his head, came out and shut down the Vanuatu striker’s options before he had enough time to get a shot off. Moso jinked his way into the box and got a shot away as the half ticked down, as the action flowed from end to end by two teams determined to attack.
It was somewhat ironic then, that when referee Veer Singh blew his whistle for the break it was the first scoreless half of the whole tournament.
New Zealand coach Martin Bullock must have stressed the need to keep the pressure on, as they started with a good run and cross by Luke Supyk that no one could get a decent touch on.
But the real drama came in the 56th minute which saw Yann Chilia taken down in a challenge, then lash out at Bruce after the New Zealand striker played him on the ground. Chilia’s kick at Bruce was easily enough for referee Singh to draw a straight red and reduce Vanuatu to 10 men. Anton Isaako, Foord and Bruce were all shown yellows in the ensuing fracas.
The end to end action didn’t let up as both teams searched for the breakthrough.
Vanuatu’s defensive line were doing a fine job of tracking back on Supyk and Bruce, frustrating any chances they made in the space they were given out wide. Supky had a fantastic chance in the 73rd minute, but Nakou matched Foord’s earlier effort by executing a perfectly timed charge and save.
As the game moved into its crucial phase, New Zealand stepped up a gear and peppered the Vanuatu area with crosses and shots.
A header by Luka Coveny went inches outside the far post after a corner, after that both side’s thoughts must have started turning to a penalty shootout. However, a run by Supyk proved to be too much for Nakou, who attempted to charge again and clipped the New Zealand striker to the ground. Singh pointed to the spot, and Supyk hammered the ball into the top corner, leaving Nakou rooted to the line as there was no way in the world he would have been able to stop it.
New Zealand coach Bullock was full of praise for his men post-match, saying that he wasn’t worried towards the end and that they’d prepped well for situations like that. Vanuatu coach Emerson Alcantara simply noted he was proud and that the future is bright for Vanuatu football with this group of players.
NEW ZEALAND 1 (Luke SUPYK 90+1 pen)