Following a tense and highly competitive afternoon of football at the 2018 OFC U-19 Championship Qualifier at the CIFA Academy, only Tonga and Samoa remain on target to book their ticket for the next stage of the competition later in the year in Tahiti.
After both sides secured their second wins from as many matches they will next face each other in the tournament decider, while the two winless teams, American Samoa and hosts Cook Islands will be both determined to end their campaign on a high.
On the back of their impressive 3-0 win over Cook Islands the Tongans were bursting with confidence as they lined up against American Samoa to kick off the opening game on Match Day 2.
Soane Mailangi’s team made their intention clear from the outset by pressing high up the field to put American Samoa’s defence under plenty of early pressure.
They didn’t need to wait for long to be rewarded for their efforts, taking a 7th minute lead courtesy of the lively Atunaisa Namoa.
Inspired by their potent attacking trio, Tuia Falepapalangi, Anthony Likiliki and goalscorer Namoa, the Tongans kept pouring forward looking for a second, however they were left frustrated by a well drilled American Samoan defence and their keeper MJ Faoa-Danielson who made a number of crucial saves to limit the damage to a single goal deficit at the break.
If there were any nerves in the Tonga camp during half-time they have quickly disappeared just five minutes after the restart as Namoa popped up again to double his sides lead and grabbing a brace for himself in the process.
Knowing that goal difference could decide the outcome in the final analyses Tonga was determined to finish the game with a flourish but the young American Samoans had other ideas.
Rather than falling apart they kept their composure and structure to defend well and create some good attacking opportunities at the other end.
Despite their best efforts Tonga had to remain content with a hard fought 2-0 win which kept them on track to reach the next stage of an OFC competition in the first time ever in Tonga’s football history.
“We still have a vision to make history for Tonga Football Association and this win against American Samoa is a good win for me,” Tonga coach Soane Mailangi said after the win.
Although Mailangi admitted his side could have been more clinical in front of goal, he was delighted with his players’ overall performance
“Yeah lots of opportunities in the first half and also in the second half to score goals but for me the boys did their jobs, the finishing could have been better and maybe that’s what we will work on the next two days.”
Despite the loss, American Samoa coach Tunoa Lui was also full of praise of his side.
“Tonga is a very physical team and very skillful team and I knew they will come and attack us but I told the boys just try to stop them from turning and playing forward and push them because we didn’t just come her to defend we want to attack to and we created a few opportunities but we missed a couple,” Lui said.
Following Tonga’s second win of the tournament Cook Islands knew that they must defeat Samoa to keep their qualification dreams alive, while Samoa were determined to make it two wins from two matches in order to keep pace with their table topping rivals
Following a nervy start Samoa asserted their authority and Henry Smith, who was rewarded with a starting berth following his hat-trick heroics as a substitute against American Samoa, was in the thick of the action from the outset.
Playing in the lone striker role Smith looked dangerous during the opening exchanges and he did put the ball in the back of the net before his celebrations were cut short when the goal was disallowed due to an earlier foul by a teammate.
After withstanding the early onslaught Cook Islands have grown in confidence as the match developed into an evenly contested physical battle.
Nothing separated the two sides at half-time and tension kept rising throughout second period.
With very little separating the two teams it seemed that only some individual brilliance can break the deadlock and that’s exactly what happened when the best player on the night Samuelo Malo kept his cool to give Samoa the lead in the 78th minute.
Cook Islands kept pushing forward looking for an equaliser and with a minimum of 5 minutes of extra time added on by the referee the Samoans had to withstand a nerve wrecking finale before holding onto the narrowest of wins over the hosts.
Samoa coach Valerio Raccuglia couldn’t hide his relief after the final whistle.
“I thought Cook Islands fought really hard, today was obviously their last game if they don’t win, so they were going to come out fighting and in the last ten minutes you could see they were looking for this goal, yeah they are a good side.”
The Samoa coach admitted his side has plenty to work on before their final showdown against Tonga.
“Again and again, we like to make it hard for ourselves,” he lamented.
“We need to finalise, we need to convert our chances, again we had four or five today but we need to keep their keeper work, if we don’t hit the target we are not going to score.”
Cook Islands meanwhile have left with only pride to play for when they meet American Samoa on the final Match Day and it’s a tough pill to swallow for coach Alan Taylor.
“Incredibly disappointing, that’s it now – it’s out for us, yeah there are tears.
“It’s all about winning and there is one more game to go and yeah pride will be there, but it can two days to pick them up I think, they are very disappointed,” Taylor said after the loss.