As the only team left with a chance to catch New Zealand at the top of the 2015 OFC U-20 Women’s Championship, Samoa entered the match knowing they required victory over Vanuatu to force a final day showdown with the defending champions on Saturday.
The draw means New Zealand, who had the bye on Match Day 4, are assured of a fifth-straight OFC U-20 Women’s Championship title, and a place alongside the likes of Spain, Japan and Germany at the World Cup.
The result also keeps Samoa in second position, after they left it until the last minute of added time to secure their second draw of the tournament, coming back from deficits on two separate occasions in the game.
Coach Leti Tamasese praised the fighting spirit her side had displayed at Loto-Tonga Soka Centre.
“We fought really well in the end and to come back like we did was pleasing,” she says.
“We knew we could do it because we did something similar against Tonga when we were forced to recover from being 2-0 down.
“What I liked most was their heart, the heart they put into that game. They stuck to the job and got there in the end.”
Vanuatu opened the first half with arguably their best football of the tournament so far, controlling possession and playing with a physicality which Samoa simply couldn’t match.
A Monica Melteviel strike from just outside the box got the scoring started on six minutes and it looked as if plenty more would follow, as Priscilla Charley caused chaos down the left wing.
They had a number of opportunities to double their lead, but the stubborn Samoa defence made a habit of showing up just in time to prevent further goals.
However there was no stopping Charley’s effort in the 22nd minute, as she received the ball on the edge of the box, spun and unleashed a stinging shot into the top of the net.
Having spent most of the half scrambling back in defence Samoa were looking visibly tired, yet still managed to force a couple of quality saves from opposing keeper Noela Bakokoto before half time.
The break seemed to breathe new life into Tamasese’s side, while the introduction of Madeleen Ah Ki added a new dimension to the Samoa midfield.
On 48 minutes captain Matalena Daniells took full advantage of a free kick from just outside the box, driving the ball past the defence and into the bottom left of the net.
A strange piece of play three minutes later almost saw Samoa equalise, after referee Amos Anio ordered a dropped ball which Shalom Fiso kicked back towards Bakokoto to restart play. The ball caught the wind and bounced over Bakokoto’s head, requiring every bit of her outstretched arm to keep it from entering the goal.
Samoa then didn’t have to wait long for another chance, equalising in the 54th minute thanks to a curling effort from Ah Ki which drifted up and over the Vanuatu wall and keeper.
Once Vanuatu shook off their sluggish start to the second period the game opened up, with good chances on goal falling for both sides.
As the final 20 minutes approached Melteviel popped up for her second, using the wind to full advantage as she curled her shot in from the top of the box to reclaim the lead.
Knowing their hopes of remaining in the hunt for the title required them getting all three points, Samoa pushed forward in the final five minutes of regulation time.
A great reaction save from Bakokoto on Fiso looked to have sealed the result for Vanuatu in the fifth minute of added time, but just a minute later Samoa were awarded a free kick right on the edge of the box.
Up stepped Daniells to power the ball over the wall and into the back of the net for the second time in the match, earning Samoa a point which keeps them a point ahead of Vanuatu in second place.
Vanuatu coach Joel Rarua lamented a slow start to the second 45 minutes, which saw his team concede twice.
“We did a lot better in the first half obviously, and we tried to keep that going but Samoa in the second half were really good and put a lot of pressure on the girls,” he says.
“When Samoa equalised at 2-2 we were still confident, but then unfortunately in the final minutes of added time our girls lost concentration and Samoa got the goal.
“It is sad because the effort was there, but the result just didn’t go our way.”
Later in the afternoon New Caledonia made sure they won’t leave the tournament without a victory, getting up 3-2 over hosts Tonga.
After the game coach Kamali Fitialeata said it was a relief to finally see his side play to their potential.
“I’m happy for them, I know their value and I know the profiles of these players,” he says.
“I’m pleased that it was a win and that we won’t be leaving here with the sentiment that we don’t know how to play football.
“Bravo to the girls, it was a bit scary at the end but the goal today was to win.”
After surviving an opening 15 minutes which saw Tonga launch a number of attacking raids down the left wing, New Caledonia took a 1-0 lead to the sheds thanks to a Lyndsay Nyipie goal in the 26th minute.
The hosts weren’t having any issues creating chances, with Vea Funaki and Seini Lutu regularly beating their markers to deliver quality ball through to their forwards, but finishing let them down.
At the other end Nyipie and Yali Hace were proving a constant threat with the ball.
The third goal to come via a free kick on Match Day 4 doubled New Caledonia’s lead at the 64-minute mark, as defender Marie-Luce Tchacko floated gracefully over the wall and keeper Mele Akolo.
However the joy was short lived, as three minutes later Ofaloto Laakulu outpaced her marker and finished to bring the score back to 3-1.
Seven minutes from time Hace lobbed beautifully over Akolo in open play for another New Caledonia goal, but when Laakulu bagged her second in the final minute of regulation time Tonga were in the box seat to steal a late draw for the second match in a row.
But whatever Tonga came up with in the four minutes of added time New Caledonia had an answer for, holding on to win their final game before sitting out Match Day 5 with the bye.
The result leaves Tonga requiring a victory over Vanuatu on Saturday if they are to avoid finishing last in the competition.
Coach Penateti Feke said the game had been a missed opportunity.
“Obviously it was disappointing, we had so many chances - more than the New Caledonia team - but we just didn’t use them to our advantage to get the shots on target today,” she says.
“I think if the girls had played the first half the way they played the second half then we would have had a different result today.”
With New Zealand having already secured pole position there is no longer a need for simultaneous kick-off on Match Day 5. Therefore, at 1pm Vanuatu will play Tonga before Samoa and New Zealand close out the competition at 3.30pm.