Papua New Guinea wraps up their campaign with a win against Tonga but all eyes were on Vanuatu who beat Fiji in the group decider to clinch top spot in Group B at the OFC Men’s Olympic Qualifiers in Lautoka on match day three.
In the earlier match, with pride on the line for both teams, Papua New Guinea and Tonga competed well against each other for the bragging rights to finish third.
Papua New Guinea started the encounter on the front foot with some scoring opportunities in the opening exchanges.
Midfielder Freddy Kepo opened the scoring in the 11 minutes, in reward for Papua New Guinea’s strong start to the match.
Three minutes later, Tonga captain Hemaloto Polovili led by example to draw level with a clever finish to grabbed his second goal of the tournament.
It looks as if both teams would be locked at the break but Papua New Guinea captain Gregory Togubai had other ideas to put his side back in the lead as the first half spilt into added minutes.
Papua New Guinea led 2-1 at the break and came backfiring in the second half as they look to end the tournament with a flourish.
Togubai scored his second goal in the 49 minutes to extended Papua New Guinea’s lead before Kepo adding another alongside goals from Bernard Purari and an own goal from Tonga goalkeeper Mahe Malafu.
Papua New Guinea coach Percy Mataio was pleased for his team to get a reward for their hard work throughout the competition.
“I think this win is for the boy, they’ve worked hard in their first two games, unfortunately, we didn’t get the result in the first two games but there were positive signs towards what we did today in this tournament and it showed with the performance,” he said.
“We can only build on from here on, there’s a lot of things we worked on as a team and we want to continue to establish that foundation going forward therefore if we can continue to have that consistency then we can be able to build on from here on”.
Mataio stressed that the future of Papua New Guinea national team is in the hands of most the current U-23 players if they determined to continue playing.
“It’s all up to the players if they continue their professionalism and keep to the process that we have, I’m sure we will have a look at them and continue that process into the national teams,” Mataio insisted.
His opposite number, Timote Moleni, Tonga coach gives credit to his boys for another spirited performance in the competition.
“Thank you for this opportunity, I believe in the first half we defended well and the team came out strong and we were able to even get a goal and we managed to keep the score at 2-1. But the boys played their hearts out,” he said.
Moleni added that participating in the tournament provided a right pathway for football in Tonga.
“Yes, I believe this tournament a huge blessing to team Tonga as we rarely get the opportunity to play against high caliber teams such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Vanuatu,” he explained.
“Our participation has given our boys more exposure and it will greatly help our team improve our performance to at least lift the level of football in our country”.
In the Group B decider for semi-final placements, Fiji came out of the blocks as the liveliest of the teams in the opening minutes.
The hosts’ best chance arrived in the 8 minutes when Kishan Sami delivered a dangerous ball into the Vanuatu box only for the towering Sekove Finau header missed the target.
It was an intense affair in the opening half an hour as New Zealand referee Matthew Conger shown yellow cards to Mohammed Shah of Fiji and Vanuatu captain Jason Thomas.
The defining moment arrived on the stroke of half-time after a communication breakdown in the Fiji defense gifted an opportunity for Claude Aru to slot home into an empty net.
Vanuatu picked up where the left off to mount pressure on the Fiji backline in search for another goal which did not eventuate.
Both teams had chances to score but Vanuatu held on to their narrow lead to secure top spot and a semi-final clash with Group A runners-up.
Vanuatu coach Etienne Mermer said his boys have achieved their aim to advance to the last four as group leaders.
“First of all, thank you for a good job for the boys and as I said, once we start to winning, we need to win and try our best to lead this pool,” he said.
“Now today we have done it, we win the game and we’re looking forward to the semis.
“We know that we’re playing Solomon and they are also a good team”.
Fiji coach Marika Rodu lamented the lapse of concentration in defense which cost them the game. But the Fijian is optimistic his team is in heading into the right direction ahead of the semi-finals against New Zealand.
“I think overall, it’s a good match, we created some good goal scoring opportunities in the first half but unfortunately, we took a silly goal due to lack of communication and not reading the long ball well,” he said.
“We are not out of the tournament yet and therefore we need to remain positive and look forward to the game against New Zealand.
“I think we should take the positives for yesterdays between Solomon Island and New Zealand which Solomon Islands showed that their defense can be broken and I think that’s an area we are looking at”.
The OFC Men’s Olympic Qualifiers resumes on Wednesday 2 September as New Zealand takes on Fiji in the first semi-final before the Melanesian clash between Vanuatu and Solomon Islands in the second semi-final at Churchill Park in Lautoka.