An earlier kick-off on Match Day 5 of the OFC U-19 Championship tested New Zealand’s ability to adapt to hot and humid conditions but they still went on to secure top of Group A with a 4-0 win over Papua New Guinea this afternoon.
In the 3pm kick-off Tonga surprised the hosts with an organised performance, falling just 2-0 to Tahiti who will join New Zealand in the semi-finals as Group A runners-up.
New Zealand managed the change in conditions and stadium well all things considered although their opponents were much more at home in the conditions.
After having their bench completely obliterated by suspensions following the match against Tahiti, Papua New Guinea were left with just two substitutes including reserve keeper Baxter Morris, for their game against the defending champions.
It’s certainly not how coach Harrison Kamake wanted to turn out but the OFC B Licence-holder did what he could with the resources he had at his disposal and at least for the first 45 minutes things were looking good for the Melanesians.
Goalkeeper Graham Berigami played out of his skin, making impressive acrobatic saves throughout the first half to leave the opposing front line incredibly frustrated at times. Sylvester Luke, who had his red card overturned by the OFC Disciplinary Committee, played a crucial role in the backline for his team with some goal saving challenges denying the likes of Max Mata, Oliver Whyte and Willem Ebbinge.
However the class of the Kiwi side shone through in the second half, with half-time substitute Matthew Conroy having an immediate impact on the match as he made a driving run into the opposing penalty area in the opening minute only to be dragged down.
Captain for the day Mata stepped up and nailed the ball into the top of the net for the opener, ten minutes later and he was once again firing home from the spot after Luke dragged one of his teammates down in the box.
Conroy then got on the board himself when he scored his side’s first goal from open play for the day in the 67th minute.
Berigami looked like he might have tarnished his efforts when he dragged an opponent down in the box, but the gloveman redeemed himself when he saved the effort from Whyte. However Mata was waiting to net the follow up, securing a hat-trick in the process.
New Zealand coach Des Buckingham acknowledged the performance from Papua New Guinea, the first half in particular.
“It was a different game for us. Papua New Guinea set up very well and made it very difficult for us – full credit to them for that especially in the first half.”
With a place in the semi-final assured, Buckingham said it was another opportunity to make a few changes to the starting line-up and ensure the entire squad had a chance to impress ahead of Wednesday’s encounter.
“We managed to get one of the players who hasn’t played yet, Matt Conroy, on and I thought he had a big impact on the start of the second half and that helped us for the remainder of today,” he said.
“Today was a different test kicking off at 12 in very hot, humid conditions. To be able to manage the game in the way that they did, score four goals and finish with a clean sheet was very pleasing.”
After what has overall been a relatively forgettable outing for his side, Harrison Kamake took some positives from his side’s performance today.
“I’m a bit disappointed with the result,” he said, “but the boys really took it to New Zealand especially in the first half.
“We’d said in camp we had to take the game to them and credit to the boys for the first half and going into the break 0-0.
“In front we lacked, we had chances but we didn’t finish them and it came back to hurt us.”
In the late game it would have taken a lot for Tonga to knock Tahiti out of contention for the second spot in the semi-finals.
But they approached the game like they have every match so far, looking at it as a learning experience and an opportunity to test themselves against some of the best players the region has to offer.
As expected Tahiti had the best opportunities and ran the show for much of the game with the shots coming from all directions and keeping Sione Tuifangaloka busy at the centre of defence as well forcing some big saves from Semisi Otukolo.
However Tahiti weren’t going to be kept at a distance forever and it ended up being Rainui Nordman who opened the scoring after racing between the defenders to place the ball past Otukolo just before the half-time break.
It took Tahiti just six minutes after the restart to find the net for a second time through midfielder Kavai’ei Morgant who latched onto a ball cut back by Ramanui Amau.
Tahiti brought their second string keeper Tevaerai Tamatai in to replace Moana Pito in the 72nd minute and despite being two goals down at this stage Tonga had a few tricks up their sleeve to keep their hosts on their toes.
With Mohammad Rajani controlling midfield, Tevita Kau and Vai Lutu were having to work hard up front to try and break down the Tahiti backline in an effort to finish one of the long balls being put up.
Tonga had a chance to pull themselves back within one goal of their opponent in the 83rd minute after being awarded a penalty, unfortunately for the side Rajani struck his penalty the same way Tamatai dived and the keeper was able to make a clean save.
Tahiti coach Bruno Tehaamoana said it was very much the objective to get through the group stage and into the semi-finals so he’s pleased his side held together this afternoon to get the job done.
“From the beginning we prepared well for the opening phase and we’ve just won our second match so we’re happy with how it has gone,” he said.
Tehaamoana made a couple of tactical changes for today’s encounter and believes it was the right thing for the occasion.
“I told the whole group that everyone has their place in the squad. If we picked them to take part in this qualifier for the FIFA U-20 World Cup here at home, they have to be ready at any time,” he said.
“In the starting line-up there’s some that were injured and some that were on a yellow card and there was a chance they wouldn’t be able to take part in the semi-final so we took some insurance and it worked for us.”
For Tonga a third consecutive loss wasn’t so easy to take, however coach Soane Mailangi said it has been a truly wonderful experience for the players and coaches.
“The last game to come up 2-0 is pretty good for us,” he said.
“We have said all along that a good result for Tonga is to come up to this stage and be competitive in an OFC tournament and I think we tried our best to complete all the visions we put through.
“This stage is a little bit fast, the players are skilled and physical. We’ve learned new skills that we’ll go home and work on and we’re looking forward to the next stage that we go through to.”
New Zealand will now face the runner-up of Group B in Semi-Final 1 while Tahiti will meet the winner of Group B in Semi-Final 2, with both matches scheduled for Stade Pater on Wednesday 15 August.