Although New Zealand sits unsurpassable at the top of their group, Fiji and New Caledonia will be playing for experience, exposure and pride when they face in the first leg of their 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ OFC Stage 3 qualifiers at Churchill Park this Wednesday.
After defeating Solomon Islands 1-0 in a friendly encounter at the same venue last week – motivated by a sea of boisterous Lautoka fans – Fiji coach Christophe Gamel is hoping for tomorrow’s home crowd to have the same effect.
“The crowd is the twelfth player,” he said.
“I hope that they come to help and support us because, believe me, this game will be very hard. I am 100 per cent sure of that.”
The two OFC Stage 3 encounters are key stepping stones in Gamel’s plan to build more depth within the national team, which the Frenchman plans on achieving by giving younger players game time against New Caledonia.
“We are preparing for the future. I have started a new process with youth and this will be a good test to give players experience,” he said.
“New Caledonia are a very good team and I’m taking it like a test. It’s always an honour to represent Fiji in a World Cup qualifier and everyone – agents and clubs – look at these kinds of games to find players.
“It’s a double win: exposure and international experience.”
New Caledonia coach Thierry Sardo has his focus on the future as well, and plans on using the matches to develop a stronger, more structured future national team.
“For us, as for Fiji, a new cycle is beginning with an eye on the OFC Nations Cup 2020,” he said.
“We have put in place a year-long game plan which is adapted to the qualities of the New Caledonian players, and we will continue to work on this in order to have the most competitive team possible.”
With captain – and New Caledonia national team veteran – Bertrand Kai suspended for the matches after a red card in their last fixture, Sardo has applied a similar plan to Gamel, bringing younger players in to join the experienced squad.
“Integrating young players is important for the future of the national team and they won’t be on their own because they will be surrounded and advised by the managerial staff. It’s important to see how they adapt to being part of the group.”
His side hasn’t taken the field together since their encounters with New Zealand in November but with all his players match-fit following their domestic league, Sardo is confident in Les Cagous’ earning the upper hand over Fiji.
“We are excited to be back together after six months without any international competition. We are enthusiastic at the idea of these international encounters against Fiji and they will be a reward for these players on the back of their club performances.”
Fiji vs. New Caledonia
Wednesday 7 June
Referee: Kader ZITOUNI (TAH)
Assistant Referee 1: Sione TEU (TGA)
Assistant Referee 2: Bernard MUTUKERA (SOL)
Fourth Official: George TIME (SOL)
Vital Statistics: Currently sitting 19 places below New Caledonia on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the clashes with New Caledonia could contribute to movement up the ranks from their current position of 181 if Fiji can turn positive results.
The Players: In Fiji’s recent friendly match against Solomon Islands, defender Kolinio Sivoki proved that any player on the field can find the net, using his precision and accuracy to score the winning penalty kick. With six caps for his country already, the 22-year-old has proven himself an anchor in the backline and a challenge for some of the region’s best attackers.
Coach Quote: “We have a game plan. We have been preparing for any problems that could come up for us against New Caledonia and we’ve been developing our strengths at the same time. We need to focus on keeping possession, reading the game, and working together as a team.”
Vital Statistics: The average age of the New Caledonia team in last year’s OFC Nations Cup was 25, but the team is two years younger for their upcoming matches, averaging at 23. The youngest in the squad, Shene Welepane, is only 19-years-old and will be making his first international appearance in the senior team after representing New Caledonia at the 2016 OFC U-20 Championship in Vanuatu.
The Players: Experienced defender Emile Bearune has represented Les Cagous over 30 times, and played a pivotal role in their 0-0 draw against New Zealand in their last 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ OFC Stage 3 fixture. Bearune’s patience and precision when defending created several counter-attacking opportunities in both of their New Zealand fixtures.
Coach Quote: “We are going to Fiji without any pressure. We have already shown our capability to play in front of a crowd that is completely behind the home team.”