Solomon Islands have put their most recent loss to New Caledonia behind them, coming from behind to claim a 3-2 victory at Stade Fautaua on the opening day of Group B action at the OFC U-19 Championship this afternoon.
Meanwhile Fiji romped to a 3-1 victory over Vanuatu as the two nations opened their campaigns in the evening encounter.
It’s the exact score line which Solomon Islands were downed by in 2017 during the OFC U-17 Championship, also in Tahiti, with the win seeing New Caledonia through to the final and on to India at the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
While today’s match didn’t have quite so much riding on it, the victory for Batram Suri’s side could prove crucial when it comes to tallying up points and goal difference further down the track.
For now, the former Solomon Island international is pleased to have witnessed his side come together and make a strong start to the competition against a side he rates highly.
“To play against New Caledonia, for the Solomon Islands, is not easy,” Suri said.
“It’s always one wins, then the other wins and always by a close margin. So we expected that it would be tough today.
“We came from behind, we were doing well and the boys really tried their guts out. The concentration of defending to attack is what the boys did well and they really worked for each other on the field.”
It was an incredibly close encounter between the two Melanesian nations with New Caledonia picking up where their U-17 squad left off in 2017, taking their first chance in the opening minute via Pierre Bako whose effort glanced just over the crossbar.
In fact New Caledonia had five or six decent chances within the opening ten minutes which they were unfortunate not to finish, with Solomon Islands goalkeeper Joel Nanago able to take much of the credit for that.
The break eventually came in the 23rd minute when New Caledonia were given a penalty which captain Cyril Drawilo placed past Nanago to open the scoring.
Drawilo continued to play a key role for the Caledonians combining well with his Mont-Dore club-mates Titouan Richard and Lucas Bitaud to create difficulties for Solomon Islands up the flank.
However despite dominating possession and creating more chances it was Solomon Islands who were next on the scoresheet. Lino Houairia had the honours of opening his side’s account when he found himself unmarked at the back post and free to tap in a cross.
In the 52nd minute the game went south for New Caledonia as goalkeeper Christopher Yeiwene not only picked up an yellow card as he punched the ball clear under pressure from Ali Mekawir, but he picked up a head injury that forced him to be replaced.
That meant reserve keeper Une Kecine’s first action of the match would be attempting to save a penalty. It’s a feat he’s managed before but today wasn’t to see a repeat as Patrick Taroga fired just wide of his outstretched hand.
New Caledonia gave their opponent a helping hand in making it 3-1 in 72nd minute when Lucas Bituad’s attempt at clearing a corner ended up in the back of his own net.
A handball from Solomon Islands in their own penalty area saw referee Norbert Hauata pointing to the spot for the third time in the match, with New Caledonia’s captain Drawilo once again stepping up to send home.
Despite a strong showing in the remaining 15 minutes, the Caledonians couldn’t find the goal they desired to at least salvage a point from the match and were forced to watch on as their opponents celebrated victory on this occasion.
New Caledonia coach Felix Tagawa said his side was well prepared for the encounter but were found lacking in certain areas which proved crucial to the final result.
“On the face of it we were prepared, in the first half our game plan was in place and we had the width, but we didn’t score the chances we need to,” Tagawa rued.
“They had two or three chances before the break and they put one of them away and that injected some intensity back into the match.
“We thought we had everything in place but they started to get us in the middle and we weren’t able to coordinate ourselves.”
In the evening action Vanuatu took on Fiji in yet another showdown between Melanesian brothers, and once again the match lived up to the expected hype with both sides really going for it.
The best chances in the first half seemed to fall predominantly in Fiji’s favour as their speed and physicality proved difficult for Vanuatu to contain. Speedster Ratu Dau along with Kishan Sami, Mohammed Khan and Tito Vodowaqa were a constant thorn in Vanuatu’s defensive line as they latched onto long balls and threatened the goal throughout the first half.
However Kaison Maki’s charges started to find their place in the match and were soon putting pressure of their own on Fiji, but it wasn’t enough to trouble them and Fiji hit them where it hurt just before the break.
Dau, who had been a constant threat up the left, beat Junior Bule in foot race to go 1v1 with keeper Joshua Willie who Dau chipped with ease to open the scoring.
The goal put Vanuatu at a disadvantage for the second half and they struggled to overcome allowing Fiji to control the game when they came out for the final 45 minutes.
Less than ten minutes after the restart and Fiji were increasing their lead as Mohammed Naizal put a low cross in across the face of the goal which Tito Vodowaqa placed past Willie.
Being two goals down seemed to inject some life into Vanuatu and they pushed to find something which would bring them back into the game. A couple of chances presented themselves but were off-target or blocked.
The break for Vanuatu came in the 78th minute when a foul in the penalty area had Campbell-Kirk Waugh pointing to the spot.
Jordy Tasip stepped up to convert from the penalty spot with ten minutes remaining and Vanuatu looked like a second might be coming two minutes later only for Mohammed Alam to boot the danger away.
With only added time remaining Waugh was once again pointing to the penalty spot, this time at the other end of the field, as Fiji were awarded a penalty.
Kishan Sami saw his first effort saved by Willie, but he kept his wits and made sure not to miss with his follow up attempt which saw Fiji take a 3-1 lead, which they held until the final whistle.
It wasn’t how Vanuatu coach Kaison Maki had envisioned starting the competition, but felt it was a performance which showed the difficulties the team had leading into the tournament.
“I think the issue of arriving late and all these things, our boys tried their best but they can’t do anything because it’s up here and physically, and they couldn’t respond today,” Maki said.
“We know Fiji, we know they prepared a lot and physically are strong.
“We were a bit slow today to attack them, we didn’t respond to them. The boys started getting into the game towards the end of the second half, but it was too late.”
On the other hand, Bal Reddy was very pleased with both the performance and result his boys got in today’s Group B encounter.
“I think this is a well-deserved victory for us,” he said, “especially starting the tournament and getting three points, I think that is the way forward for us.”
Reddy said the approach was to close down any channels Vanuatu might be looking to exploit, and not allow them to play the ball.
“We had compactness in our defence and as soon as we had the ball we tried to play possession. Rather than playing long balls, after looking at all the teams, we tried to play short passes and I think that worked really well for us.”
The OFC U-19 Championship takes a break tomorrow before Group A resumes on Wednesday 8 August (local) at Stade Pater.