Photo Credit: OFC Media via VFF

A goal in added time has seen Tonga salvage a one-all draw against the Cook Islands in the opening match of the OFC U-19 Men’s Championship 2024 – Qualifying at VFF Freshwater Stadium in Port Vila.

The match see-sawed in the second spell, with both teams looking drained in the sapping humidity, until powerhouse Tongan midfielder Va’inga Teu found space in the box and fired home a powerful shot which gave youthful Cook Islands goalkeeper and captain Emmett Connolly,no chance.

Earlier after a settling in period, the Cook Islands were rewarded for their superior attacking intent in the 21st minute when Jack Tuakanangaro – on as a replacement for injured left winger Paulo Allsworth – met a cross beautifully to score the opening goal of the tournament.

The Cooks looked to have gone further ahead early in the second spell when the ball ended up in the back of the net from a corner, but referee Kyllian Lelarge ruled a foul and the goal was disallowed.

Teu was a stand-out figure for Tonga, especially on defence. In one segment of play he left two Cook Islanders writhing on the ground after strong, but perfectly legal, challenges. Minutes later he elicited a desperate fingertip save from Connolly with a dynamic long-range shot.

Vilikisepi Tai, who started at right back and shifted to the left wing, was also menacing in the final stanzas for Tonga as he thundered down the touchline. Desperate defending and a lack of composure with the final touch kept him at bay and the scoreboard attendant off the ladder he utilises to update the scoreline. Until the very first minute of added time.

Cook Islands coach Jess Ibrom was yellow carded in the 67th minute after voicing his displeasure at a challenge in the penalty box on attacking midfielder Ngametua Tuakana, who was subsequently helped off the field with a leg injury. It was one of four second half yellow cards for the Cook Islands, including a telling off for reserve goalkeeper Robert Savage on the bench.

In the next round of games, on Friday, the Cook Islands will tackle American Samoa while Tonga confronts Vanuatu. Only one of the four teams will qualify for the OFC Men’s Championship to be held in Samoa this July.

Tonga: 1 (Va’inga TEU 90+1′)

Cook Islands: 1 (Jack TUAKANANGARO 21’)

Half-time: 0-1