The battle to progress to the OFC Champions League Group Stage will come down to the wire after a 2-1 victory for Puaikura FC over Lupe Ole Soaga during today’s OFC Champions League Qualifier means they’ll be hard to displace from a top two finish.
While Veitongo’s 3-1 win over Utulei Youth at Loto-Tonga Soka Centre sees them come into contention as they slot into the table just behind the Samoan club champions on goal difference.
Puaikura FC were the first to open scoring in this afternoon’s opener against Lupe Ole Soaga when defender Kris Carpenter’s head connected with a cross from Tyrell Barringer-Tahiri to find the back of the net in the 29th minute. Puaikura continued their momentum and found the goal again only a minute later when Maro Bonsu-Maro followed up poor clearance by Lupe goalkeeper Faalavelave Matagi.
The Samoans stepped it up a notch in the second half to try and close Puaikura’s two goal lead, but the margin didn’t tighten until both teams went down to 10 men after a disagreement between Anthony Hobbs and Lapalapa Toni saw both players sent off the field.
Without Hobbs as an anchor in the backline, Lupe pushed forward into Puaikura’s half and scored when a free kick from Suivai Ataga was punched into goal by Puaikura goalkeeper Keegan Inia as he attempted a clearance.
Despite the nail-biting final minutes of the game, Pauikura coach Matthew Calcott was pleased with the overall performance of his side.
“It was good until we went down to 10 men then had the small mistake from our goalkeeper leading to a goal,” he said.
“It got a little bit tight at the end there but it was a good polished performance,” he added.
“The boys tired a little bit in the heat but it was really good to see them battle through one of those games we really wanted to win and we’re really excited that we could potentially be going to the next stage now.”
Despite their loss, Lupe Ole Soaga coach Paul Ualesi was pleased with his side’s performance and is keeping his head high.
“It was a really nice game, I take my hat off to the boys. I’m proud of them. They really put 100 per cent into their performance but hard luck for them,” he said.
“We had a lot of chances that we weren’t finishing well but everything else I think they executed well,” he added.
Ualesi has his eyes set on Friday now, feeling confident that his side’s best football is yet to be displayed in this competition.
“This is the last chance for us. I think we’ll really step up, really try to finish on a high to qualify for the next stage.”
In the later match, Veitongo and Utulei Youth battled to the last minute, both desperate to get their first points on the table.
Veitongo opened the scoring in the 13th minute when the side was awarded an indirect free kick inside the Utulei Youth FC penalty box and Kilifi Uele found the back of the net to become the competition’s oldest goal scorer.
Utulei Youth equalised before the end of the half when Paulo Bourne received a cross and sent the ball past goalkeeper Mahe Malafu.
Halapua Falepapalangi regained the lead for Veitongo in the first five minutes of the second half before a well-placed ball by Lafaele Moala secured the 3-1 win for the Tongans.
Veitongo goalkeeper Mahe Malafu kept his side in the game for the last minutes of the match, pulling off diving saves up until the final whistle.
Coach Timote Moleni was proud of the attacking effort displayed on the field but believes there’s still a lot of room for improvement ahead of Friday’s final match.
“The finishing today was good but there’s still a lot of things we need to get sorted out to be prepared for our next game,” he said.
Utulei Youth coach Pita Sinapati was disappointed with the loss but acknowledged the fight put in by his team.
“I think we came out shorthanded but I’m glad that the boys kept fighting until the final whistle,” he said.
Sinapati said his side will leave everything on the field in their final match against Puaikura FC on Friday.
“We’ve got to hustle up, we’ve still got one game left and we’ve got nothing to lose. We’ve got to play hard and stay focused.”
The final day of the 2017 OFC Champions League Qualifier will see Puaikura FC take on Utulei Youth FC at 12pm (local time) before Veitongo FC and Lupe Ole Soaga meet for their final match at 3pm (local time) at Loto-Tonga Soka Centre in Nuku’alofa, Tonga on 3 February.