The heavens opened but it was Fijian prayers that were answered with a 3-0 win over Tonga at HFC Bank Stadium. It was the last group game of the OFC U17 Championship 2023, and meant Fiji top Group A.
Kickoff was delayed for the fixture by 45 minutes, due to the torrential rain that had hit Fiji in the previous 24 hours. 90mm fell in the lead up to the original start time, meaning that both sides knew it would likely be difficult for Fiji to score the required 13 goals to knock Tonga out of the tournament.
Fiji started off well, not letting the soggy field stop them playing attacking football. After only a couple of minutes there was a great chance missed by Jacob Seninawanwana, who just lost his footing attempting to connect with a low cross. The impressive Ibraheem Afazel, who won player of the match in Fiji’s 3-0 win over Samoa, fired a shot from the edge of the box that just scraped the cross bar.
But Seninawanwana soon made up for it, scoring in the eighth minute in a classic poacher’s finish, knocking in a deflection off the goalkeeper from a messy corner. That seemed to suggest that the 13 goals needed to knock Tonga out might just have been within reach.
However, it soon became apparent that despite both teams’ efforts, the weather was going to make it as hard as possible to play free flowing football. This helped the Tongans, whose robust defence kept the Fijians out and while they struggled to get any reward up front, they certainly showed that they were up for the challenge.
In the 43rd minute Tonga finally got the chance they deserved, a powerful shot by Siosiua ‘Eteaki forcing Fijian keeper Ilisoni Koro dive to make a good save. By then, the heavy rain had returned, making it very tricky to move the ball along the turf.
Tempers flared end of the first half, after the ball was moved to the corner of the Tongan half. A scuffle broke out and the outcome was a red card being shown to Sailimone Ravonokula, meaning he was the first player to be sent from the field in the entire tournament.
Whatever Fiji coach Sunil Kumar said at halftime worked, as Fiji scored their crucial second goal just five minutes after the teams returned to the field. Despite having 10 men, Waitisoni Batirerega managed to send a beautiful pass through for Afazel, who sent the ball past goalkeeper Siosiua Moimoi.
The rain had mercifully eased off as the half wore on, but neither side really threatened much other than a few long-range shots by the Tongans. That was hardly surprising as both were into the quarterfinals as the score stood.
Fiji did get the last bit of glory though, after Koro decided to dribble the ball out of his box to halfway. It led to a corner, with a perfect delivery by Prashant Kumar headed home brilliantly by William Khan goal.
Coach Kumar was rewarded on his birthday with a solid win moving into the quarterfinals, however he also got the gift of a yellow card from referee Ben Aukwai in the second half.
Both sides now await the outcome of the quarterfinal draw.
FIJI 3 (Jacob SENINAWANWANA 8’, Ibraheem AFAZEL 50’, William KHAN 90’)
— OFC Oceania Football (@OFCfootball) January 18, 2023