After the two opening Group A matches in the capital on Saturday, the Sugar City of Lautoka is excited to stage the first two Group B clashes of the OFC Men’s Olympic qualifier 2019 on Sunday as Melanesian rivals Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea kick start the proceeding before underdogs Tonga square off against hosts Fiji at Churchill Park in Lautoka, Fiji.
The opening match-day of the group is set to be a thriller as the top three teams from the last Olympic qualifying tournament in 2015 are poised to set the pace on the road to Tokyo 2020.
Vanuatu reached the final four years ago before a tormenting penalty shootout defeat to Fiji in the final shattered their dream of reaching the Olympics in Rio. This time they are returning with a talented squad who could potentially go one step better.
The Etienne Mermer coached side landed in Fiji on Friday and are itching to hit the ground running against their Melanesian counterparts.
Mermer said he is believes in each of his players to put on a good performance on Sunday.
“We are ready for this tournament, we have been preparing well and know all the players,” he said.
“We have worked on some tactical stuff and how we could set up the team towards the first game tomorrow with our neighbouring friends PNG”.
“I believe in all the players, most of them know how we work, most of them are part of our system and we’re looking to our game tomorrow.”
The Vanuatu coach added that he has limited knowledge of Papua New Guinea heading into the match which he is ambitiously targeting three points.
“To be honest I don’t really know about PNG but I know they are well prepared for this tournament too. PNG might be a really good team too but we are looking forward to a good challenge tomorrow.”
Like Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea will look to improve on their third-place finish in Port Moresby which is by far their best achievement in the tournament.
The opening match presents both teams with a chance to build some momentum and set the pace for a semi-final qualification at the business end of the competition.
Papua New Guinea coach Percy Mataio is adamant the team is well prepared ahead of an uphill battle with Vanuatu.
“We’ve done enough back home in Papua New Guinea so now we’ve just quickly refined our structure before the game starts on Sunday,” he said.
“It was all about getting the players touches back and getting them familiar with their roles prior to the game on Sunday.
“Vanuatu has always been a tough competitor in this region and we are looking forward to the challenge.
“It’s not to say that we are not ready, we are more than prepared to face Vanuatu and we are confident that we will give a good performance come Sunday.”
The former Papua New Guinea international is confident they are here to compete in what he rates as the toughest group in this competition.
“Vanuatu and Fiji have done preparations leading up to this tournament but I’m not too sure with Tonga,” he added.
“All the teams are here because they want to compete and so are we, therefore whichever team we face on the day, I’m sure we will be competitive.”
Coming into the tournament as defending champions, hosts Fiji have put in a lot of commitment to their preparation which started as early as January under former national team coach Christoper Gamel.
Gamel’s departure opens the door for Fijian Marika Rodu to take the helm of the team after a successful tenure with the women’s national football team.
“I think we are pretty happy with the work we have done so far,” he said.
“We’ve had positive feedback on how the players progressed, we know it’s going to be at home so we’ve always trained with pressure so that we can handle the pressure when it comes to playing at home.”
“The boys are in good shape, we are more focus on Tonga and leaving the other two teams out of the picture now, and we want to make sure we start the tournament on a good note.
“Some of these players at one time came into the national team set up who went to the Pacific Games.”
“For me to transition to this team is quite easy but at the same time came with its own challenges. So we have really created an environment where we could both work together. We have to use the foundation the former national head coach Christoper Gamel has put in to build from there and branch out into how we need to play as a team.”
Despite just recently taking up the role as coach, Rodu is optimistic his team has covered the hard yards leading up to the opening match against the Tongans.
“It was not hard thou at the same time I’ve been following them locally, I understand how they play and how they have come through this process,” Rodu explained.
“I was also part of the trials when they first came in for trials in February. I have a fair idea of their profile, it’s just a matter of putting the pieces together, connecting the dots and applying what needs to be applied.”
Playing at home comes with pressure but the Fijian coach has set his sight on a dominant performance in front of the home faithful.
“We want to be the team that keeps a lot of possession, we want to be the team that creates a lot of attacking opportunities not only creating but also finishing them off,” he maintained.
“We anticipate it’s going to be a physical encounter, we anticipate the sun will be hot, we anticipate the home crowd will be behind the boys.”
“So there is no room for dropping our guards, there’s no room for laxity, there’s no room for mistakes. Securing the three points in this first game is important.”
Despite carrying the underdog tag, the Tongans are determined to compete with the other three teams in the group. Taking on the hosts is no easy task but Coach Timote Moleni is banking on the experience that some his players attained at the recent Pacific Games in Samoa.
“We prepared well in Tonga and most of our players participated in the Pacific Games in Samoa after we went back to Tonga to continue our preparation,” he said.
“Now we are here we are looking forward to our game with Fiji. We know the difference between us and the Melanesian teams as we are the underdog. Fiji is a good team and they have very good players.”
Vanuatu vs. Papua New Guinea
Sunday 22 September
Lautoka, FIJI KO: 12:00
Click on link for the live stream: http://bit.ly/2m5ptwz
Referee: Matthew CONGER (NZL)
Assistant Referee 1: Mark RULE (NZL)
Assistant Referee 2: Bernard MUTUKERA (SOL)
Fourth Official: George TIME (SOL)
VANUATU – 1. Daniel ALICK (GK), 2. Jesse KALOPONG, 3. Waiwo KALMET, 4. Jason THOMAS, 5. Joseph IARUEL, 6. Tasso JEFFREY, 7. Jordy TASIP, 8. Claude ARU, 9. Johnathan SPOKEYJACK, 10. Bong KALO, 11. Azariah SOROMON, 12. Lency Philip, 13. Selwyn VATU, 14. Mole MANSALE, 15. Armando RAVO, 16. Ronaldo WILKINS, 17. Bethuel OLLIE, 18. Jasson TARI, 19. James CHILIA (GK), 20. Joshua WILLIE (GK)
Head Coach: Etienne MERMER (Vanuatu)
PAPUA NEW GUINEA – 1. Jordan TOBEM (GK), 2. Peter DABINYABA JR, 3. Carlos ONNE, 4. Gimale ESSACU, 5. Rupa EMIL, 6. Timothy MALI, 7. Gregory TOGUBAI, 8. Freddy KEPO, 9. Pokana MEA , 10. Frank TOBOROYAN, 11. Bernard PURARI, 12. Emmanuel SIMONGI, 13. Joseph WAIWAI, 14. Gabby YANUM, 15. Yagi YASASA, 16. Tyran VAPARA, 17. Edward JOSHUA, 18. Jonathan POLE (GK), 19. Ernest GWAITEP, 20. Jerry SERIBA (GK)
Head Coach: Percy MATAIO (Papua New Guinea)
Tonga vs. Fiji
Sunday 22 September
Suva, Fiji KO: 15:00
Click on link for the live stream: http://bit.ly/2kTyI2Q
Referee: Sivakorn PU-UDOM (THA)
Assistant Referee 1: Philippe REVEL (TAH)
Assistant Referee 2: John PAREANGA (COK)
TONGA – 1. Mahe MALAFU (GK) 2. Tevita VAKATAPU, 3. Nicolas VEA, 4. Kelepi MATAELE, 5. Opesi TU’IFANGALOKA, 6. William SENITULI, 7. Sione TUIFANGALOKA, 8. Soakai VEA, 9. Rick TAULA, 10. Laulea TAUFA, 11. Hemaloto POLOVILI, 12. Mohammad RAJANI, 13. Amanaki LAUI, 14. Sitaleki FISI, 15. Pita HUNI, 16. Pesamino TOMASI, 17. Valeiaatu FILI, 18. Polutele TAVITE (GK)
Head Coach: Timote MOLENI (Tonga)
FIJI – 1. Atunaisa NAUCUKIDI (GK) 2. Shivam NAIDU 3. Jovilisi BORISI (GK) 4. Afraz ALI 5. Ivan KUMAR 6. Zainal ALI 7. Rajniel CHAND 8. Joeli RANITU 9. Mohammed SHAH 10. Bruce HUGHES 11. Tito VODOWAQA 12. Kishan SAMI 13. Savenaca BALEDROKADROKA 14. Akeimi RALULU 15. Arami MANUMANUBAI 16. Sekove FINAU 17. Patrick JOSEPH 18.Scott WARA 19.Peni TUIGULAGULA 20.Mohammed ALAM (GK)
Head Coach: Marika RODU (Fiji)