Hosts Tupapa Maraerenga FC and Samoan champions Kiwi FC have both advanced to the Group Stage of the region’s premier club football competition as the sun set on the OFC Champions League 2019 – Qualifying Stage at the CIFA Academy in the Cook Islands.
Even before the third and final match day, Tupapa knew they’ve done enough to secure one of the two remaining qualifications places but that hasn’t dampened the local favourites’ desire to end the tournament with another victory despite being made to dig deep by a doggedly determined Pago Youth outfit.
Meanwhile Kiwi FC have left their best to last, thrashing their Tongan rivals Lotoha’apai United FC in their quest to become the 16th and final team to be included in the next phase of the 2019 OFC Champions League as Qualifying Stage runners-up.
Under the blue tropical sky a gentle breeze swept across the ground to offer the 22 players some respite from the heat as they walked onto the field to the tune of the FIFA anthem ahead of their decisive clash at Rarotonga’s CIFA Academy.
Due to their better goal difference a draw would have been enough for Lotoha’apai, while the Samoan champions were under no illusion of what was required from them in order to keep their Champions League hopes alive.
With their survival on the line, Martin Tamasese’s troops wasted no time to settle their nerves through Paul Scanlan’s curling drive in the third minute that was soon followed by a powerful strike from Lotial Mano before Silao Malo’s clinical finish at the end of his eye-catching solo run inside the 26th minute.
Sensing the vulnerability of the shell-shocked Tongans, Kiwi FC went for the jugular led by Paul Scanlan who was on target twice again, including a spectacular 43rd minute drive that cleared the cobwebs from the top left corner, as he completed an impressive hat-trick while helping his side to 5-nil half time score.
It got worse for Lotoha’pai six minutes after the break when Lionel Taylor lobbed the ball over the keeper to add another, but to their credit the Tongans pulled one back through Hema Polovili from the penalty spot.
However, that failed to halt the Kiwi FC juggernaut and Paul Scanlan soon restored normal service by tapping in for his fourth before Kitiona Nauer added his name to the score sheet and Lotial Mano grabbed a brace to cap the 9-1 rout in injury time.
Following their emphatic win, coach Martin Tamasese was full of praise of his players
“I’m so proud of the boys and the result.
“Our strength is our speed and our technical side, so we worked really hard on that which helped us to pressure Lotoha’apai and helped to score a lot of goals,” the former Samoa international added.
Paul Scanlan’s four goal heroics also received a special mention from the Kiwi FC coach.
“He is a speedster and a very talented guy and I’m really happy for him to get four goals.”
Looking forward to the next phase, Matasese insists his side will be ready to make Samoa proud at the biggest stage for club football in the Pacific.
“Four years ago we represented our country in the Group Stage and ever since we wanted to come back, so this is our chance not only to qualify for the next stage but to be competitive,’ he said.
Meanwhile, his Lotoha’apai counterpart Lui Muavesi couldn’t hide his dismay.
“It was a disappointing game for me as a coach, the boys didn’t do what we have planned.
“The slow start once again hit us badly, in the first 20 minutes they had already three goals, really we lost it in the first ten minutes,” the native Fijian lamented.
Those who though the final match of the Qualifying Stage between Tupapa Maraerenga FC and Pago Youth will turn into a dead rubber without intensity were proved to be mistaken after the two sides have produced a thoroughly passionate, entertaining and closely contested encounter.
Despite winless following the opening two rounds, American Samoan representatives Pago Youth have insisted they had what it takes to upset the hosts and they came within a whisker from pulling off a major upset.
Coming into the final match day on the back of two impressive outings, the hosts looked to be again in the mood during the opening exchanges, only to be stifled by a well organised Pago Youth defence at the centre of which Josiah Taani seemed to be in inspired form to keep his side in the contest with perfectly timed tackles, interceptions and blocks.
After weathering the storm, the America Samoans flexed their muscle to take the lead against the run of play courtesy of a strong run on the right and an even better finish by Walter Pati in the 29th minute.
Spurred on from the sideline by coach Delaney Yaqona, Tupapa pushed forward looking for an equaliser which was eventually delivered by a well taken Fauzul Ahmed header two minutes into the second half.
Very little separated the two sides for the remainder of the match with chances at both ends before Tupapa’s class came to the fore to clinch all three points with a late, 89th minute winner from Harlem Simiona.
Tupapa coach Delaney Yaqona paid tribute to their opponents after the hard-fought win.
“Hats off to Pago Youth, and the one thing you can’t fault in island football is passion.
“They certainly bought the passion, you could hear in their chant before the game, and they made it so hard for us, and at the end of the day we were our own worse enemies because we knew what they were going to do and we didn’t deal with it in the first half, eventually it came in the second half, so we are happy to take the win.” Yaqona explained.
Shifting his focus to the Group Stage, the Tupapa coach is confident his players will be up for the challenge.
“The Champions League is obviously the most prestigious tournament in the whole of the Pacific so for Tupapa from the Cook Islands, one of the teams from the bottom four countries to make it to that stage, it is a very big thing and not only for the village but for the Island.
“We will prepare hard to tackle the top teams in the next phase of the competition,” he said.
Despite leaving the Cook Islands with three defeats, Pago Youth coach Rambo Tapui was also pleased with the way his side improved throughout the tournament and he remains optimistic about the future.
“I’m very happy with the performance, I feel positive and I’m sticking with this young team.
“They are still at an early age and I know they will Improve for the next tournament they will come back to,” the Pago Youth coach added.