With Oceania’s lone spot at next year’s Tokyo Games on offer, the stakes couldn’t be higher for New Zealand and Solomon Islands when they face each other in the final of the OFC Men’s Olympic Qualifier at Lautoka’s Churchill Park.
Their meeting will be a rematch of the two teams’ entertaining encounter from last Friday in Suva, in which New Zealand edged past their rivals to secure top spot in Group A.
The curtain raiser to the main event for 3rd place will be another rematch between Vanuatu and hosts Fiji, which was won by Vanuatu 1-0 to secure Group B supremacy last week.
Going into the final New Zealand are the only undefeated team left in the competition with an impressive record of four wins, 28 goals scored and only four conceded.
And coach Des Buckingham cannot be happier with his side’s growth throughout the tournament.
“We are pleased with how we have played, we wanted to get better everyday and we have shown over the past four games that we have done that, we have played some really nice football which is what we said we wanted to come to the islands for, to play a different style, a style we have played at the U-20s World Cup and what we took to the Pacific Games, so we want to roll that into the final and get better and to continue to scoring some goals,” Buckingham explained.
Despite carrying the favourite’s tag the New Zealand coach is adamant the Solomon Islands will be putting up a tough challenge.
“Solomons are a good team, the four teams that made the semi-finals they all have their own strength and the Solomons certainly showed theirs against us,” he said.
“They are well coached, their coach Batram (Suri) has set them up well and he’s had them for a couple of years.
“He has got some good individual players there, so we have to pay respect to that and we have to get ready for that, but the focus is on us and, we have got some very good players of our own, and the focus will be on how we play and how we approach, I’m confident we will do enough or we will do as much as we can to be ready for the game,” the New Zealand coach added.
Following his side’s 4-2 win in their Group A clash last Friday in Suva, Buckingham is anticipating another thrilling encounter in the rematch.
“I just hope it’s as entertaining as that was, because that was a really good game for those who were there, and the Solomons were really well supported in the stands as well, we’ve had some good support of our own, we have some families here supporting their boys, that’s always nice so let’s hope for a good game, we want to play well,” he said
Buckingham knows that representing our region at the Olympics would be special but he refuses to look too far ahead.
“If you ever get an opportunity in your lifetime to become an Olympian whether that be a player or a coach, there is not many people who can say that, but we have to make sure the focus isn’t on the Olympics, the focus has to be on the final and the focus is very much on the first half against the Solomons, it will be a very tough test for us, but again the players are focussed on that game only, but whoever goes, whether it’s us or the Solomons they will go and represent Oceania very well,” said the New Zealand coach.
With such a huge prize on the line the Solomon Islanders are just as keen to produce a special performance in the upcoming decider according to their coach Batram Suri.
“The boys are so excited with the final, especially after winning the game against Vanuatu, it wasn’t easy we had to fight and fight to win the semi, and now they are excited to play against New Zealand again in the decider, and I’m very excited as well,” he enthused.
Having pushed New Zealand all the way in their meeting during the group stages, the Melanesians have gained some valuable experiences and lessons that Suri will be hoping to exploit in the rematch.
“Looking at our match against New Zealand in our Pool game, it was not easy but that match helped us to prepare for the final against them, especially regarding our weaknesses,” the Solomon Islands coach explained.
“We will have to compete against them and especially when we have ball possession we will have to attack them, the way New Zealand play if we hang back they will punish us, so we will have to play are usual attacking style.
“They have big players and will have their strategy well planned against us, we are smaller team and we will need to work extra hard to capitalise on their mistakes and to make this final a good spectacle,” Suri added.
The Solomon Islands coach insists its crucial for his players to approach the task ahead of them with confidence and plenty of self-belief.
“We have to be positive, it’s football and anything can happen, we hope we will have a good game against New Zealand and compete and we have to maintain our positivity to challenge them and win the game,” Suri said.
Meanwhile hosts Fiji and Vanuatu will be both aiming to sign off their campaign with a victory when they face each other in the play-off for third place in Saturday’s opening game.
After finishing Group B runners up, the Fijians were comprehensively outplayed by a rampant Kiwi outfit to end their Olympic qualification dream with a 6-1 defeat.
The hosts’ final match of the tournament will offer them a chance for redemption in front of their home fans and Marika Rodu’s men will have an extra motivation to revenge their 1-0 loss to Vanuatu during last week’s group stages.
“Definitely we want to finish on a high note at the playoff for third and fourth place on Saturday,” the Fiji coach said.
“We need to recover and resettle the team, but we will come fighting in the last game, the idea is to win the bronze,” he added.
Following their disappointing semi-final exit in the hands of the Solomon Islands, the Etienne Mermer-coached Vanuatu side will also be doing their best to show pride in their final performance of the tournament.
“It wasn’t easy to lose the semi-final but we still need to keep our heads up and finish well, we will continue till the end, we are playing Fiji again for the third place and we just need to finish the game well, said the Vanuatu coach.
“I know Fiji won’t want to finish fourth, and it’s going to be a good challenge because we don’t want to end up in fourth place either, so we stay focussed and look forward to the game tomorrow, Mermer added.
FIJI vs VANUATU
Saturday 5 October
Churchill Park, Lautoka, Fiji
KO: 12:00 (local)
LIVE STREAM: https://bit.ly/2oqnpAs
Referee: MedericLACOUR (NCL)
Assistant Referee 1: Tevita MAKASINI (TGA)
Assistant Referee 2: Folio MOEAKI (TGA)
Fourth Official: Matthew CONGER (NZL)
FIJI – 1. Atunaisa NAUCUKIDI (GK) 2. Shivam NAIDU 3. Jovilisi BORISI (GK) 4. Afraz ALI 5. Ivan KUMAR 6. Zainal ALI 7. Rajniel CHAND 8. Joeli RANITU 9. Mohammed SHAH 10. Bruce HUGHES 11. Tito VODOWAQA 12. Kishan SAMI 13. Savenaca BALEDROKADROKA 14. Akeimi RALULU 15. Arami MANUMANUBAI 16. Sekove FINAU 17. Patrick JOSEPH 18.Scott WARA 19.Peni TUIGULAGULA 20.Mohammed ALAM (GK)
Head Coach: Marika RODU (FIJ)
VANUATU – 1. Daniel ALICK (GK), 2. Jesse KALOPONG, 3. Waiwo KALMET, 4. Jason THOMAS, 5. Joseph IARUEL, 6. Tasso JEFFREY, 7. Jordy TASIP, 8. Claude ARU, 9. Johnathan SPOKEYJACK, 10. Bong KALO, 11. Azariah SOROMON, 12. Lency Philip, 13. Selwyn VATU, 14. Mole MANSALE, 15. Armando RAVO, 16. Ronaldo WILKINS, 17. Bethuel OLLIE, 18. Jasson TARI, 19. James CHILIA (GK), 20. Joshua WILLIE (GK)
Head Coach: Etienne MERMER (VAN)
NEW ZEALAND vs SOLOMON ISLANDS
Saturday 5 October
Churchill Park, Lautoka, Fiji
KO: 15:00 (local)
LIVE STREAM: https://bit.ly/2onpoFX
Referee: Norbert HAUATA (TAH)
Assistant Referee 1: Bertrand BRIAL (NCL)
Assistant Referee 2: Philippe REVEL (THA)
Fourth Official: Suvikorn PU-UDOM (THA)
NEW ZEALAND – 1. Cameron BROWN (GK), 2. Jordan SPAIN, 3. Dylan DE JONG, 4. Hunter ASHWORTH, 5. Robert TIPELU, 6. Dane SCHNELL, 7. Myer BEVAN, 8. Jake PORTER, 9. Logan ROGERSON, 10. Clayton LEWIS, 11. Ollie WHYTE, 12. Conor TRACE, 13. Liberato CACACE, 14. Billy JONES, 15. Sean LIDDICOAT, 16. Gianni STENSNESS, 17. Callan ELLIOT, 18. Ben WAINE, 19. Noah BILLINGSLEY, 20. Alex PAULSEN (GK)
Head Coach: Des BUCKINGHAM (ENG)
SOLOMON ISLANDS – 1. Desmond TUTU (GK), 2. Junior DAVID, 3. John AETA, 4. Aengari GAGAME, 5. William KOMASI, 6. Rodney SURI, 7. Augustine WAITA, 8. Patrick TAROGA, 9. Adrian MARA, 10. Darold KAKASI, 11. Tuita MAEOBIA, 12. Harold NAUANIA (GK), 13. Alick KITALO, 14. Steve MAELASI, 15. George LEAGA, 16. Frank KABUI17. John OGE, 18. Molis Junior GAGAME, 19. Raynick LAETA, 20. Joel NANAGO (GK)
Head Coach: Batram SURI (SOL)