New Zealand are fairly comfortably through to the semi-finals of the OFC U-20 Championship from Group B, but it is set to come down to the wire for Solomon Islands and Tahiti on Saturday.
Both nations know that confirming a place in the final four gets them a step closer to qualifying for next year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup, which for the first time welcomes two teams from the OFC qualifying tournament, specifically the winners of each semi-final.
Solomon Islands face an uphill battle as they take on the group leaders New Zealand, a side hoping to make it a clean sweep of the group stage in Luganville, Santo.
The Kiwis’ coach Darren Bazeley is confident in his players, especially given how well they have adapted to the conditions so far.
“Our lads are doing everything to be successful here. Since we got together I have been more impressed with their attitudes and what we are trying to achieve by winning this tournament and making the World Cup and they are giving themselves every chance.
And while New Zealand will be as prepared as possible, one thing that they can’t prepare for as easily is the unpredictable nature of the Solomon Islands game.
“They offer something a little bit different,” Bazeley said of Saturday’s opponents.
“They are unstructured, unpredictable and are a dangerous side. We will be preparing the same. We will recover well and then look to build on what we have achieved so far.”
It’s a big ask for the Solomon Islands to take down the mighty New Zealanders, but it’s not one they will be shying away from.
And given how well they’ve performed in their two matches to date, coach Pedro Mateo has faith in the growing ability of his charges.
“For so many of these boys this has been a major learning experience and I think we are learning with each game,” he said.
“They are working together really well and I think we have a good chance against New Zealand.”
Despite taking the lead against New Zealand during their second match of the tournament, Tahiti couldn’t hold on and were eventually downed 4-1.
It was more than disappointing for both players and staff given that goal difference could well play a part in separating the side from the Solomon Islands when it comes to the crunch.
After taking a full day out from football to clear their heads on Wednesday, the team has turned their focus back on the task at hand – not just beating Cook Islands, but beating them well.
But as New Zealand and Solomon Islands both found out, scoring against this organised side is not as easy as it may have been in the past.
“The Cook Islands defended outstandingly well in their first two matches. It was impressive, and then they have backed that up with an excellent goalkeeper as well,” coach Ludovic Graugnard said.
“We have to hope that New Zealand will win their last match, and by a good two or three goals.
“For us we need to score quite a few goals of our own against the Cook Islands and we should know after the first game on Saturday exactly what we need to do to continue on our journey.”
With the desire of the Tahtitans to continue on their path to the semi-finals, and ultimately the FIFA U-20 World Cup, Cook Islands have a huge mountain to climb.
They’ve twice shown their mettle against sides who might have expected to rout them, and with each match their confidence has grown.
Knowing that they’re out of the semi-final race certainly takes some of the pressure off, but they can still play a role in how the final group standings look and coach Matt Calcott is determined his side will do everything to lift themselves off the bottom rung.
“It’s no secret that we’re in a tough group,” Calcott said.
“But we’ve made a lot of progress and I don’t think anyone expected us to be as competitive as we have been.
“We will probably know what we need in terms of goals and not wanting to finish last in the tournament, we’ll be aiming to for a win without a doubt.”
Solomon Islands vs. New Zealand
Luganville Soccer City Stadium
Saturday 10 September
Referee: Mederic LACOUR (NCL)
Assistant Referee 1: Bertrand BRIAL (NCL)
Assistant Referee 2: Phul SINGH (FIJ)
Fourth Official: Salesh CHAND (FIJ)
Vital Statistics: Solomon Islands have only once beaten New Zealand – a 2-1 victory back in 2005 – in eight previous encounters.
The Players: This side has no shortage of attacking talent with Albert Witney, Jabeth Solomon and Adrian Rickson leading from the front. Captain Richard Raramo manages the backline with ease and has a knack for delivering the ball.
Coach Quote: “We have a tough game coming up but we’re concentrating on New Zealand and how to beat them. We want to finish top in the group and continue our stay in Santo.”
Solomon Islands: 1. Desmond TUTU (GK), 2. Sedrick DOLIASI, 3. Joe GISE, 4. Richard RARAMO, 5. Kisina SILAS, 6. Steven TOLEYI, 7. David FILIA, 8. Molis GAGAME, 9. Jabeth SOLOMON, 10. Albert WITNEY, 11. Adrian RICKSON, 12. Harold NAUANIA (GK), 13. Ian KALU, 14. Darold KAKASI, 15. Sandrack TUI, 16. Augustine WAITA, 17. Israel TATAI, 18. Alvin RAY, 19. Larry ZAMA, 20. John DAUTA
Coach: Pedro MATEO (ESP)
Vital Statistics: New Zealand have scored 7 goals in two matches, the best goal tally of any team across the two groups so far.
The Players: Myer Bevan is currently leading the goal charge with four goals in two games. Charlie Cox is a hard working player who doesn’t give up the chase and captain Clayton Lewis has had a major impact in the middle.
Coach Quote: “Because we are the favourites, and we’re New Zealand we have to win every game. There’s pressure on us to make sure we win every game and we can’t afford to not beat Solomon Islands even if we then go on and win the semi-final. We need to put in performances all the time.”
New Zealand: 1. Michael WOUD (GK), 2. Jack-Henry SINCLAIR, 3. Sean LIDDICOAT, 5. Hunter ASHWORTH, 6. Luke JOHNSON, 7. Logan ROGERSON, 8. Moses DYER, 9. Myer BEVAN, 10. Clayton LEWIS, 11. Sarpreet SINGH, 12. Cameron BROWN (GK), 13. Charlie THOMAS, 14. Jake PORTER, 15. Lucas IMRIE, 16. Joe BELL, 17. George DEBENHAM, 18. Reese COX
Injured: 4. Nando PIJNAKER
Absent: 19. Joshua DIJKSTRA (GK)
Coach: Darren BAZELEY (NZL)
Cook Islands vs. Tahiti
Luganville Soccer City Stadium
Saturday 10 September
Referee: Joel HOPKEN (VAN)
Assistant Referee 1: Avinesh NARAYAN (VAN)
Assistant Referee 2: Jeremy GARAE (VAN)
Fourth Official: Arnold TARI (VAN)
Vital Statistics: Cook Islands have never met Tahiti in this competition before.
The Players: Young defender Jarves Aperau displayed a ‘never say die’ spirit against Solomon Islands and was key to shutting down a number of their high-pressure attacks. Orin Ruaine-Prettley has proven a strong presence all over the pitch.
Coach Quote: “Hopefully we will be able to play higher up the pitch. Our approach will be dictated to by what we need out of the game, so we will be looking to change a few things and play higher up the park.”
Cook Islands: 1. Keegan INIA (GK), 2. Jarves APERAU, 3. George ELLIS, 4. Sunai JOSEPH, 5. Michael WOOD, 6. Kimiora SAMUELA, 7. Samuel MAOATE-COX, 8. Cahjun WILLIS, 11. Thane BEAL, 12. Melbourne MATAKINO, 13. Orin RUAINE-PRATTLEY, 14. Conroy TIPUTOA, 15. Owenne MATAPO, 17. Kristian YOUNG, 18. Dwayne TIPUTOA, 20. Manaariki PIERRE (GK)
Coach: Matt CALCOTT (NZL)
Vital Statistics: With only one point going into their final match Tahiti need a victory, but also need Solomon Islands to lose if they have even a chance of progressing to the semi-finals.
The Players: Captain Heirauarii Salem has been outstanding for his side in the centre of the park, on the ball he’s strong but he has also shown excellence game awareness when out of possession. Hauragi Huri’s suspension is a loss, and means Vaianui Drollet and Brandon Autai will have to increase their workload to keep the Cook Islands at bay.
Coach Quote: “Football leaves beautiful stories in its wake and we have to hold on to our hope that we can continue. We have to retain our hope as anything is possible, we’re capable to scoring goals.”
Tahiti: 1. Moana PITO (GK), 2. Brandon AUTAI, 3. Tuma TIATOA, 4. Vaianui DROLLET, 6. Ryan PETITGAS, 7. Roonui TEHAU, 8. Ro’onui TINIRAUARII, 9. Heirauarii SALEM, 10. Michel MAIHI, 11. Sandro TAU, 12. Rainui NORDMAN, 13. Joachim TEANUANUA, 14. Toriki GUYOT, 15. Marcus SIEJIDR, 16. Tetahio TERIINOHOPUAITERAI (GK), 17. Raivaru HANERE, 18. Kaena ONUU, 19. Daniel SEINO, 20. Raumatahi NOHO
Suspended: 5. Hauragi HURI
Coach: Ludovic GRAUGNARD (TAH)