The Solomon Islands got their campaign to progress to the OFC U-20 Championship semi-finals back on track with a 3-0 win over Cook Islands while New Zealand retained their spot at the top of Group B standings.
The New Zealanders were forced to come from behind to beat a physical and well-organised Tahitian side, with three second-half goals giving them a comfortable 4-1 victory.
They have now secured their place in the semi-finals but acknowledge it wasn’t easy against a determined Tahiti side.
“We knew what they were going to bring, it was very competitive,” coach Darren Bazeley said of their Tahitian opponents.
“In the first half there were free-kick chances, we had three and we didn’t take them, they had one at the other end and scored off the set-piece.
“I think throughout the whole game we pretty much restricted them to that one chance, but they gave it a real good go, it was a competitive game and it was good to be part of.
“Our guys eventually got into it, got on top and then played really well I thought and dominated once we got back level.”
In the last meeting between these two sides, it was Tahiti who famously upset the Kiwis to qualify for the 2008 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt.
It looked like a similar result could be on the cards when Rayan Petitgas got the final touch on a well-placed free kick to give the French Polynesians a 1-0 lead in the 27th minute.
However, when goalkeeper Tetahio Teriinohopuaiterai went over the top of Sarpreet Singh as he tried to connect with the ball, New Caledonian referee Medric
Lacour didn’t hesitate in pointing to the penalty spot.
All White Moses Dyer stepped up to neatly place the ball past Teriinohopuaiterai and bring his side in line as they went into the break.
What was a physical first-half got even feistier in the second spell with both sides well aware that tickets to the FIFA U-20 World Cup were on the line. The scrappy play from both sides earned Clayton Lewis and Heirauarii Salem, the New Zealand and
Tahiti captains respectively, a talking to from Lacour but the niggling continued from both sides.
Kiwi captain Lewis gave his team the lead 61 minutes when he drove in low at the far post and the game took a further turn in New Zealand’s favour when defender Hauragi Huri picked up a second caution, and with it his marching orders.
That was quickly followed by an own goal as Tahiti failed to deal with a Lewis free kick lofted in front of goal.
With 25 minutes remaining in the match and Tahiti battling with just ten men, New Zealand were able to further assert their dominance. The introduction of Michel Maihi for Tahiti looked to make a difference as he pressed up the left flank however it wasn’t to be for Tahiti.
In the 87th minute Myer Bevan, the hat-trick hero for New Zealand against Cook Islands, put the finishing touch on a Jake Porter cross to extend the lead to 4-1 for the five-time OFC U-20 champions.
Tahiti coach Ludovic Graugnard was proud of the performance from his players, but disappointed that couldn’t be translated into a better result for them.
“The first half was what we expected. A lot of long balls from the New Zealanders which we had worked on in training. I think we did well and were able to and we were doing well to win the first and often the second balls in the middle of the field which allowed us to really frustrate them.
“Being the ones to open the scoring certainly gave us more hope, but the penalty we will have to watch the video, although the referee was very sure of himself,” Graugnard lamented.
“The second goal was especially bad for us, and to follow that up with a red card with almost 30 minutes to go was always going to be difficult and eventually we cracked under that pressure.”
Going into the day’s opening match, Solomon Islands were the more favoured side after battling back from a two goal deficit to draw 2-2 with Tahiti.
Although having held New Zealand to 0-0 in the first half of their opener, Cook Islands had displayed impressive defensive prowess, which is something Solomon Islands coach Pedro Mateo was weary of going into the encounter.
“We expected a very nice defence because we saw it against New Zealand, the defence was very well prepared,” he says.
“We went to the locker room at half-time and discussed the best way to break this down and by putting the ball on the floor we knew the goals would come.”
For many in the crowd it was surprisingly the Cook Islands with the early chances with powerful striker Dwayne Tiputoa and Kimiora Samuela forcing keeper Keegan Inia into action early on.
They put some undue pressure on themselves throughout the first half as they allowed the Solomon Islands to dominate the midfield, but despite some decent efforts on goal, the Melanesian side were unable to break down the defences to take a lead into half-time.
Once again inspired by Mateo’s half-time words, the Solomon Islands brought their A-game into the second half with Augustine Waita connecting with a deep cross that he tapped in behind a helpless Inia.
Albert Witney, who impressed with his darting runs in possession, was rewarded for his relentless pressure in the 56th minute, finding the back of the net for Solomon Islands second in two minutes.
Witney made it three in the 83rd minute with a tap-in to put Solomon Islands in a good position going into their final group match against the New Zealanders.
“He’s one of our best players, but the reason today that we were able to succeed is because we have a nice orchestra,” Mateo concluded.
Counterpart Matt Calcott knew it would be a physically demanding match for his players as they tried to match the speed of the Solomon Islanders, and he credited his players for their resolve throughout the 90 minutes.
“The boys did very, very well and a couple of opportunities in the first half when the keeper saved it well or it hit the inside of the post and could have gone in.
“You know we created some opportunities today and gave ourselves a chance going into half-time,” he said.
“We were looking to defend a little bit deeper so they couldn’t get round the back, but they just had so many different players around the ball and transition really quickly which was hard to stop at times.
“But our boys did really well and to get a few opportunities as well is just brilliant.”
In Port Vila, Vanuatu have booked one of two Group A semi-final spots after beating a ten man Papua New Guinea side 3-1, while defending champions Fiji couldn’t hold onto a one goal lead, drawing 1-1 with New Caledonia.
Group B action concludes on Saturday with Solomon Islands playing New Zealand at noon before Cook Islands face Tahiti at 3pm.