Vanuatu and Fiji opened their Group B campaign at the OFC Men’s Olympic Qualifiers 2019 on a positive note with wins against Papua New Guinea and Tonga respectively at Churchill Park in Lautoka, Fiji.
Heading into the match to grab all three points, Vanuatu started the match against Papua New Guinea on the front foot in the opening 10 minutes.
New Zealand base Azariah Soromon connected his head with a Bong Kalo cross from the right to put Vanuatu in front inside the first three minutes.
The early goal swings the momentum in Vanuatu’s way as they controlled more of the ball possession.
Papua New Guinea responded after conceding the goal with some encouraging attacking moves which lack the end product.
Soromon dashed into the attacking third in the 19 minutes to win a penalty after he was brought down in the box. He picked up the ball to complete his brace and extended Vanuatu advantage to 2-0.
Moments later in the 25-minute mark, Bong Kalo who was instrumental behind most of the moves which led to the opening two goals turn provider with a perfect cross inside the Papua New Guinea box for Ronaldo Wilkins to finish for a third.
Papua New Guinea closest of pulling a goal back in the first half arrived in the 35 minutes when captain Gregory Togubai’s cross was headed over the bar by Freddy Kepo.
Vanuatu comfortably led 3-0 at the break despite a late surge of pressure from the Papua New Guineans.
The boys from the land of the unexpected came back strong in the second half to create some scoring opportunities.
Led by example, Papua New Guinea skipper Togubai persistent saw him win a penalty in the 52 minutes.
Togubai converted the resulting spot-kick to pull a goal back for Papua New Guinea.
After scoring, Papua New Guinea created three more chances in the remaining 10 minutes but their final touch let them down.
Vanuatu coach Etienne Mermer was pleased with the result as his team put themselves in the driving seat to finish strongly in the group.
“Firstly I would like to say congratulations to my boys they did a good job,” he said.
“Like said in the previous interview that we know PNG is a new team, a good team and we respect them a lot.
“They put us sometimes under pressure but in the end, I was really happy with how the boys perform according to how we wanted to play that is why we win today.”
His opposite number, Papua New Guinea coach Percy Mataio rued his boy’s meager start in the first half.
“I think we started really slow we didn’t expect to start that way but we put ourselves in a position where started slowly then it cost us towards the end,” Mataio said.
“The positive side of it is we came back strong in the second half and that’s where we can able to build on for the next game.”
The second match saw defending champions and hosts Fiji had to sweet for their money against a very determined Tonga side.
In the 8 minutes, Fiji captain Savenaca Baledrokadroka evades a couple of Tongan defenders to find space in front of goal but with the goal at his mercy, he missed the target.
Fiji wasted few more goal-scoring opportunities in the first half and as for Tonga their first chance saw Mohammed Rajani cuts inside to force a desperate save by Fiji keeper Mohammed Alam.
The scoreline remains deadlock as both teams went back into the sheds at half-time.
The hosts continue similarly in the second half but Fiji waited until the 55 minutes to take the lead as Patrick Joseph scored from a controversial penalty.
After missing several chances, Baledrokadroka finally finds his feet on the hour mark with a brilliant finish to make it 2-0 for the hosts.
Six-minute later Joseph grabbed a second and Fiji’s third goal before substitute Bruce Hughes round off the scoring in stoppage time.
Hemaloto Polovili scored a consolation goal for Tonga in the dying embers of the match.
Fiji coach Marika Rodu gives credit to the Tongan side for a good match and citing the lack of cutting edge in front of goal from his team.
“The first game is always tough to crack I think Tonga gave us a hard time in the beginning,” he said.
“Thou we kept a lot of ball position we make numerous attempt to get behind the line, yet there was some point in time we were in front of goal to finish but things didn’t go our way.
“I think the attitude was not right in the beginning but offensively we are more opting to go on the center so in the second half we balanced it off and started to open the Tongan defense in the sideline so I think that start to pay diffident.”
Rodu added that they need to improve on the finishing ahead of tough clashes with fellow Melanesian brothers Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.
“Moving forward we would like to work on our finishing. Tough games like Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu we need to finish these opportunities because it’s going to be hard to come by.
“We glad that we kick start this competition on a good note, on a winning note and we would like to maintain this momentum going into the next match,” Rodu added.
Tonga coach Timote Moleni was content with the gallant performance from is boys despite the defeat.
“I am is happy with the way we play and first of all l would like to thank the Fijian team for a good game,” he said.
“Like I said before Fiji is a good team and I think we did our best trying to keep them from scoring and put up a good challenge.”
The OFC Olympic Qualifiers resumes on Tuesday with Group A matches in Suva and Group B matches continue on Wednesday at Churchill Park in Lautoka.