Fiji avenged their Pacific Mini Games final defeat at the hands of Vanuatu by securing an impressive 5-1 win over their rivals in their opening encounter at the OFC Women’s Nations Cup Qualifier at Churchill Park this afternoon.
The opening game of the competition had Solomon Islands taking a 2-0 victory over American Samoa, whose side made a return to FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifying for the first time in 20 years.
With American Samoa having been relatively inactive in senior women’s football over recent times they were very much an unknown quantity for Solomon Islands going into the encounter.
Coach Larry Mana’o did a lot of recruiting of eligible players based in the USA, with just a handful having appeared in Oceania competition previously.
The Solomon Islands meanwhile, recently finished fourth at the Mini Games in Vanuatu and Diane Justus had a large majority of that squad available to her for this competition too.
Despite having a slight advantage over their opponents in terms of familiarity with the region and game time in regional competitions, Solomon Islands didn’t start much stronger than American Samoa did.
Both teams struggled with their first touch, and neither seemed too confident of their abilities in the first 25-odd minutes.
Solomon Islands’ confidence slowly started to grow until finally the first break came in the 39th minute when captain Laydah Samani took matters into her own hands, cutting around a defender before slotting into the top corner.
American Samoa weren’t without chances of their own, but between some solid defending and the safe hands of goalkeeper Margaret Kofela, the attackers were unable to get an edge on their opponent.
Some confusion in the American Samoa goal mouth following a corner as the match wound down saw Samani add a second to her tally in the 90’+4’ minute to seal the victory for Solomon Islands.
Solomon Islands coach Diane Justus was full of praise for the way her side took on board the game plan and instructions from coaching staff.
“We had to win the first game, we did it, and we’re happy,” Justus said.
“For us, the players went out there and did simply what we planned to. For us it’s a positive sign that we have a team that is working on what we are preparing them to do.”
Justus said although the match highlighted weaknesses in the squad, there were also strengths which will no doubt continue to serve them well as they progress in the competition.
“Our strength is technique-wise, ball work, and I think mental fitness as well. That’s our greatest strength,” she said.
“We knew American Samoa would give us a strong match but we managed that and that’s why we were able to have some success.”
It was disappointing for Larry Mana’o and his side not to get a more positive result for their hard work, however he is adamant they’ll bounce back.
“I’m a little disappointed, but at the same time very pleased with some things since we haven’t had a lot of games, it gave me a chance to see things again.
“There were moment when we had opportunities, plenty of opportunities to finish and possibly get a goal – maybe two – but sometimes it doesn’t work like that.”
Mana’o said the second half performance was much better from his side as they pressed forward with more intent.
“We were rushing in the first half. In the second half we slowed the ball down, tried to find open space and were trying to get the ball into the offensive third. It did work – it just didn’t convert into goals,” he said.
“It was a vast improvement from the first half though.”
In the day’s second game it didn’t take hosts Fiji long to settle in as Cema Nasau notched the opening goal in the sixth minute after her side spread the Vanuatu defence thin in the penalty area.
Fiji continued to have the majority of possession and chances in front of goal with Nasau combining well with Fiji’s 17-year-old US-based striker Trina Davis to create opportunities they were often unlucky not to score from.
Vanuatu were also able to get a couple of threatening chances away at the opposite end of the park, a decent cross after Brenda Anis won possession in the middle of the park was Vanuatu’s best first half chance but Fiji’s Adi Tuwai, the 2017 OFC U-19 Women’s Championship Golden Glove winner, had it well covered.
Davis then pounced in the 41st minute to extend Fiji’s lead ahead of the break when she was played in behind the defence, took a touch and then fired low across the face of the target for her first international goal for Fiji.
Vanuatu came out of the sheds fired up to bring themselves back into contention, controlling the ball, winning set pieces and keeping Fiji pinned into their own back third.
However Vanuatu weren’t able to keep up the pace and Davis soon struck twice in quick succession to secure a hat-trick on debut, and take Fiji 4-0 within ten minutes of the restart.
Nasau then had a brace just ahead of the hour mark as she put the finishing touch on a quick-fire counter-attack for her side.
Vanuatu made a change in the 74th minute while already five goals behind, bringing in Annie Gere whose first touch a minute later resulted in a goal for Vanuatu – and a fine one at that.
That lone goal wasn’t enough however as Fiji maintained their lead to take a significant 5-1 victory from their opening encounter.
Vanuatu coach George Kalo felt focus and concentration were the real let-downs for his side.
“I did not expect the result,” he said of the heavy 5-1 defeat.
“I think the girls just lost focus during the game. I noticed a few minutes when they picked up, and then other moments when they lost it. They need to focus on the game, concentrate more.
“We need to tighten that up before the next game, and I still believe in my girls.”
For Marika Rodu, coach of host side Fiji, the win was just dessert for the hard work the players and coaching staff have put in since the loss in the Pacific Mini Games final in December last year.
“I expected the win because we really worked hard for this game, especially this game out of the three we have here knowing the fact of what we suffered in Vanuatu last December,” Rodu said.
“We didn’t want a repeat of that match which we played really well but results didn’t come our way.”
While happy to have three crucial points, Rodu is also aware that it’s only one game in the bag with two more to go in a difficult format.
“I think we went really well today, but there’s not time to celebrate yet because we still have two games to go. It’s about staying focused and staying on track to get that eighth position in the OFC Women’s Nations Cup.”