Three goals and crucial assist from Adam Watson has not only sent New Zealand into the OFC U-17 Championship 2023 final, but also booked them a place in the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru.
Their 4-1 win over host nation Fiji at HFC Bank Stadium in Suva was at times hard-fought, but ultimately the young Kiwis showed their class to pull away with victory.
The New Zealanders didn’t have to wait long to prove why they were favourites coming into the game. After only six minutes Adam Watson found himself with a good ball threaded into the box, the Stoke City FC youth squad member then shook off a challenge to fire home a left footed shot into the goal.
It was the first time in the tournament that Fiji found themselves walking back to halfway disappointed, having won all their previous games 3-0.
Such a strong start could have killed Fiji’s spirit right then and there, but Sunil Kumar’s side didn’t lie down. On the contrary, they dominated the game after the restart and their enterprise was rewarded not long after. A free kick that the New Zealanders presumed was going directly into the box was instead played wide to Aron Naicker, who was all alone on the wing. He then sent in a perfect cross for Sailimone Ravonokula, who was back from suspension after being sent off in Fiji’s group game against Tonga, to let the ball fall at his feet to get a shot away.
It hit the crossbar but did enough to get over the line on the way down, sending the healthy crowd into raptures.
Fiji’s aggressive style has seen them pick up a fair share of cards in the tournament, but it didn’t stop them trying to match up to the New Zealanders. Three yellows were dished out by referee Ben Aukwai by the end of the first half, but the physicality didn’t deter Watson and Matthew D’Hotman de Villiers from launching a couple of good shots that drew better saves from Ilisoni Koro.
With a place in the FIFA U-17 World Cup at stake, New Zealand picked up the pace in the second half. Jackson Cole found himself with enough room to have a shot from outside the box, Koro couldn’t hold on but Watson was there to pounce and score the go-ahead goal.
Keeping in mind that the Fijians had bounced back so quickly after conceding in the first half, New Zealand’s defence tightened up under captain Dylan Gardiner. He and Luka Coveny shut down the Fijian midfield well, while up front Watson continued to cause headaches.
The defining goal came in the 72nd minute when NZ’s top scorer Luke Supyk added to his tally after Watson threaded a sensational ball through the Fijian defence. The NZ striker had a yard headstart on his man and calmly took the ball into the box and slotted it past Koro to make the game safe.
Watson then completed his hat trick with another calm finish, so his team could shift down a couple of gears as time ran out.
While it wasn’t as dramatic as New Caledonia’s shootout win over Tahiti in the other semi-final, this was an entertaining game nonetheless. Fiji battled very hard in front of their vocal fans and won the respect of many with some courageous play from the likes of Naicker, Delon Shankar and Prashant Kumar, who have all been in great form throughout the tournament.
They’ll now play off against Tahiti for third place on Saturday, while New Zealand can rest easy knowing they have qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru later this year. New Caledonia awaits them in the final before then.
NEW ZEALAND 4 (Adam WATSON 7’, 50’, 80’, Luke SUPYK 72’)
FIJI 1 (Sailimone RAVONOKULA 14’)