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New Zealand U-23 secure Olympic qualification

New Zealand U-23 players celebrate their qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (Phototek)

New Zealand have booked their place in next year’s Tokyo Games with a clinical display against the Solomon Islands in the final of the OFC Men’s Olympic Qualifier at Lautoka’s Churchill Park.

Meanwhile in the play-off for third place, Vanuatu have repeated their feat from the group stages to record another 1-0 win over the hosts and finish their campaign on a positive note.

New Zealand 5-0 Solomon Islands

 After conceding an early goal in last week’s entertaining 4-2 win over the Solomon Islands, Des Buckingham’s men showed good focus and concentration from the outset in the two teams’ rematch to decide who will represent Oceania in next year’s Olympics.

Unlike during the group stages in Suva, the Kiwis started brightly with Hunter Ashworth heading wide after using his height advantage to get on the end of a dangerous Clayton Lewis freekick, before skipper Logan Rogerson settled his side’s nerves by driving Ben Waine’s cross into the roof of the net from close range to take the lead in the 8th minute.

 Waine thought he had doubled the Kiwis’ advantage ten minutes later, but his celebration was cut short by the assistant referee’s offside flag.

Tuita Meaobia’s attempt from inside the box cleared the crossbar before Darold Kakasi’s low drive narrowly missed the post as the Solomon Islanders pressed forward searching for the equaliser.

New Zealand responded in clinical fashion with Bevan pouncing on a goalkeeping mistake to slot home, followed by Waine’s finish at the end of a sweeping move to help his side to a three goal lead at the break.

Bevan showed great awareness to pick up a clever freekick from Lewis before beating Harold Nauania with a well-struck finish to grab his second of the game midway through the second half, as the New Zealanders maintained their stranglehold on the final.

Rodney Suri and Raynick Laeta both came close to pulling a goal back at the other end, but the New Zealand defence held firm and Billy Jones had the final say by climbing high to head home a Lewis corner to seal the win.

Buckingham was delighted with his charges after the match.

“Solomons are a good team and they have changed a few things, and for us to stick to our game plan, we wanted to get better in every game and that final was, just said to the boys that that final was the perfect game,” the New Zealand coach said.

“The way we have come to islands and play football against a very good Solomons team and to win a final 5-nil and put New Zealand into the Olympics for only the third time in history   is a huge achievement for this group.

“I can’t quite put it into words, it’s an unbelievable feeling right now,  it’s very emotional but I’m very pleased and proud for the playing group, and not just the 20 that we here but the 70 or 80 that have been part of this journey and will continue to be part of it over the next eight or nine months,” added Buckingham

Meanwhile Solomon Islands coach Batram Suri rued his side’s poor start to the match.

“We conceded three goals in the first half, they had their strategy they did very well against us in the first half,” he said.

“I think New Zealand knew we wanted to score early like we did in our pool game and they worked on that,” the Solomon islands coach added.

But despite the defeat Suri is adamant his players will take some positives from the experience.

“We’ve learnt from the New Zealand side, how they play and move the ball very fast and their structure, and it was a good test for us, we are not used to big games like this but credit to the boys because they did their best ,” Suri explained.

Fiji 0-1 Vanuatu

Following their 1-0 defeat to Vanuatu during the group stages, the hosts were determined to deliver a different outcome for their fans in the play-off for third place.

However, the visitors showed more initiative in a scoreless first half, in which just a few half chances were created.

During the early exchanged Jesse Kalopong tried his luck with a couple of attempts, sending his shot over the crossbar before forcing a save from Atunaisa Naucukidi with a low drive from the edge of the box.

The Fijian keeper was again called into action following a cross from Selwyn Vatu to Bethuel Ollie inside the box.

At the other end Bruce Hughes drove straight at Vanuatu gloveman Daniel Alick before the players headed to their sheds at the end of the first half.

The hosts showed more urgency after the break with skipper Savenaca Baledrokadroka testing Alick with a shot on target.

Ollie provided an attacking outlet for Vanuatu on the right flank and Ronaldo Wilkins was unlucky to narrowly miss a dangerous cross from Bong Kalo.

Ivan Kumar made a good run at the other end but both Tito Vodowaqa and Mohammed Shah failed to connect with his cross as a rare Fijian chance went begging.

Vanuatu’s breakthrough came in the 75th minute with Azariah Soromon showing good composure in front of goal to tap in a Bong Kalo cross.

Kumar tired to respond with a speculative effort from distance before Kishan Sami’s freekick sailed over the crossbar as time was running out for the hosts.

Shivam Naidu had one more late chance to level the scores with a low drive just passing the post but Vanuatu held on to record their second 1-0 victory over the hosts.

The visitors’ assistant coach Wilkins Lauru was pleased to end the tournament on a positive note.

“It was a good performance, we followed the game plan and the boys delivered what we were expecting from them today,” he said.

“Credit to the boys, we just wanted to take something back home to our supporters and we want to thank Fiji too for a good game in our last match of the tournament,” added Lauru.

Meanwhile Fiji coach Marika Rodu was frustrated with his side’s inability to make amends for their defeat to the same opposition during the group stages.

“Yeah definitely disappointed, we made the same mistake again, we gave away the goal in the first game and again it was our mistake to gift them a goal inside our box,” he lamented.

“I think we could have managed that scenario better, but that’s football, mistakes will be made and the boys will go back and reflect on their performance,” Rodu added.


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