The Solomon Islands have come a step closer to their dream of FIFA U-20 World Cup qualification after holding Group B leaders New Zealand to a 0-0 draw and claiming a spot in the semi-finals.
Knowing they were out of contention at the final whistle of that early match, Tahiti still came out battling for pride against the Cook Islands, who continued their strong showing in Luganville holding the French Polynesians to a 3-1 win.
Solomon Islands coach Pedro Mateo has worked hard on the mental strength of his side and was elated they were able to hold out, and at times challenge, the regional heavyweights.
“Our players did a great job,” he said.
“We knew it would be a tough game, but we were mentally prepared. We started preparing for this game since we finished with Cook Islands – and even two months ago when we started our preparations.
“Now I want the boys to enjoy, and we will go to Port Vila to play the semi-final.”
Having already assured their place in the semi-finals New Zealand were able to rest some of their key players notably captain Clayton Lewis and Moses Dyer who were both sitting on a caution apiece.
Although they chose not to risk those players earning a suspension for the semi-final, New Zealand still fielded a strong side with Logan Rogerson and fellow Wellington Phoenix teammates Jack-Henry Sinclair and Joe Bell all getting starts.
The Kiwis made a strong start with Solomon Islands keeper Desmond Tutu called into early action, but the Melanesians were soon putting pressure of their own on their opponents.
The flair and pace that has become a hallmark of Solomon Islands football was evident as the New Zealand backline struggled to close down the attacks.
But the height and power of Reese Cox with Sean Liddicoat and Hunter Ashworth at his side, was enough to keep the likes of Albert Witney and Augustine Waita at bay.
An indirect free kick just before the break barely 5m off the Solomon Islands goal mouth looked like it could be New Zealand’s chance to steal ahead, but with bodies on the line the Solomon Islands were able to deny their opponents.
New Zealand were also an attacking threat with Rogerson dropping into midfield and playing feeder to Jake Porter, Lucas Imrie and Myer Bevan – but the trio just didn’t have enough to finish past Tutu who had a great game between the posts.
Solomon Islands looked like they might just get the goal they desperately sought in the 89th minute when a free kick forced a diving save from Michael Woud, however it wasn’t to be – not that they’re too disappointed given the draw secured their place in the Port Vila semi-final.
New Zealand coach Darren Bazeley said a win would have been nice, but given his side still topped the group he’s more than happy.
“We knew they were an exciting team,” he said of their opponents.
“But I’m not disappointed with our performance. It’s been very important that we came here, that we topped our group and now we get to stay here in Santo for the semi-final.
“I made a lot of changes to the team, I’ve used the whole squad and rested a few key players that were on booking and that was important for the group.
“And to be fair, we created enough chances to win the game and that’s the frustrating part – we should have put them away and should have been comfortable.”
Aware that their dream of world cup glory was over at kick-off, it was tough going for Tahiti as they took on Cook Islands in their final match at Luganville Soccer City Stadium.
“It was difficult to play this game because the 0-0 between New Zealand and Solomon Islands effectively ended our chances,” Tahiti coach Ludovic Graugnard said.
“It’s discouraging for us because we really hoped to go through to the semi-finals especially after what we did last year with the U-17s.”
Despite the outcome of that first match, Graugnard was firm with his side that although they had the right to be disappointed they still had a match to play.
“The ambiance in the changing room before the match wasn’t great. But we still had to play for our pride, for the shirt, for our country.”
But they were up against a Cook Islands side buoyed by two strong performances, and hoping to claim something from this match as a reward.
They may have been sitting on the bottom of the standings, but Cook Islands put their heart and soul into the match playing a little higher up the field and hoping their counter-attack would be enough to nick them a goal.
Tahiti had other ideas and several early chances called Keegan Inia, Group B’s most outstanding goalkeeper, into action. The captain proved up to the challenge and with support from the defence,
the Cook Islands were able to keep their opponent at bay for the majority of the first half.
However when they conceded a free kick off the top of the penalty area just before the break things weren’t looking good as Tahiti’s dead ball specialist Heirauarii Salem stepped behind the ball.
The captain hit the ball sweetly, lofting it over the wall before it took a touch from the diving Inia and hit the back of the net to open the scoring. Salem had his second soon after the second half commenced when he hit a low drive into the back of the net.
Cook Islands continued to cause some trouble of their own with Dwayne Tiputoa powering his way through the defence on a number of occasions, but not quite having enough in the tank to beat Moana Pito.
He had a prime chance fall into his lap in the 87th minute when the referee pointed to the spot after an incident in the area, with Tiputoa slotting his side’s first goal of the tournament.
The celebrations were short-lived for the Cook Islands as substitute Rainui Nordman played a great defence splitting pass for Sandro Tau to finish to take Tahiti’s tally to three.
Despite the loss, Cook Islands coach Matt Calcott had nothing but praise for his charges after a performance that saw them leave everything on the field.
“They’ve done fantastic and that goal at the end just topped it off,” Calcott said.
“They’ve been good throughout this competition, done a lot of hard work and it’s kind of about getting used to these top tournaments for them.
“They’ve been absolutely awesome and polished it off with a good performance today.”
As top of Group B, New Zealand will stay in Santo where they will be joined by Group A runners-up New Caledonia in the semi-final at Luganville Soccer City Stadium at 11am (VUT)
Solomon Islands will travel to Port Vila to play hosts Vanuatu in Tuesday’s other semi-final at Port Vila Stadium which will kick-off at 2.30pm (VUT).