The race for Oceania’s FIFA U-20 World Cup qualifying spot took a dramatic turn at ANZ Stadium in Suva, Fiji, after host nation Fiji downed title challengers New Caledonia 2-0 on Sunday.
The victory handed Fiji a second consecutive win and pole position in a competition that looks set to go to the wire.
But while the hosts were celebrating top spot the plaudits belonged to minnows American Samoa who claimed their first ever point in an OFC U-20 Championship after a thrilling 1-1 draw with Papua New Guinea.
The draw ended a 16 year losing streak for American Samoa that saw them score just twice and concede 67 times in just seven matches.
It also saw another milestone set with the Rupeni Luvu-coached side grabbing a defensive best record of 103 minutes without conceding a goal.
The record stretches from their scoreless second half of their opening match with Fiji until Papua New Guinea’s Frederick Simongi netted a 58th minute second half equaliser.
But while American Samoa enjoyed their moment in the spotlight, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu produced a more tepid goalless draw in the day’s first match.
Solomon Islands were desperate for a win after losing to Papua New Guinea on Friday but once again the Commins Menapi-coached side toiled in front of goal.
Both sides spurned golden opportunities, the most notable when Solomon Island’s forward Dunstan Quanafia missed an open goal from just five metres out with the goalkeeper well beaten.
Earlier, Vanuatu striker Tony Kaltack had slammed a powerful header against the Solomon Islands’ post with goalkeeper Philip Mango inert.
Vanuatu were equally fortunate not to lose their way when goalkeeper Charlie Waivui mishandled a tame shot that struck the upright before ending up in his grateful clutches at the second time of asking.
Anthony Pisano, the Vanuatu assistant coach, says despite the disappointing result his team’s fate is still within their control.
“We didn’t exactly play to our game plan. We were still fairly tight in defence as we knew the Solomons were going to come at us and they’re a great technical team.
“But we stayed focused and defended quite well and had created chances. Again, we were just punished for not taking them.
“A first half header hit the post and our decision making today was pretty poor and something we need to work on before our next match.
“It’s made it a lot more difficult for us and we’ve got to win pretty much all three of our remaining matches,” he says, “We were really looking for a win today so it’s set us back a little bit but who knows. We’re still in with a good shot. We play American Samoa next and then we have to be ready for Fiji.”
Vanuatu midfield playmaker Bong Kalo picked up a late injury during the match and several other key players have niggles – something Pisano says could influence their next encounter against American Samoa.
“In any tournament like this where you’re playing every two days it’s going to be difficult. But we’ve got a relatively strong bench so I would say there’s going to be a couple of changes going into the next match.”
Solomon Islands assistant coach Gideon Omokirio echoed Pisano’s words, adamant his team must win its final three games to have any chance of qualifying for New Zealand 2015.
“This was an important match for us and we had to win. The players played with a lot of confidence but were just unlucky today. We should have scored goals and won the match. Now we just have to win our remaining matches and see how we progress,” he says.
If fans thought the excitement would end there they were pleasantly surprised when ten man American Samoa held Papua New Guinea to a shock 1-1 draw.
In a thrilling opening American Samoa’s Ryan Paaga was taken out by Papua New Guinea goalkeeper Vagi Koniel in what looked a good shout for a penalty and red card.
That decision went against American Samoa but the match took a jaw-dropping turn when Sinisia Tua scored a brilliant solo goal in time added on at the end of the first half to give them a deserved 1-0 lead.
Papua New Guinea coach Wynton Rufer emptied his bench in search of the equaliser and was rewarded when substitute Frederick Simongi slalomed past five defenders before shooting beyond goalkeeper Frederick Maiava just before the hour mark.
Tempers boiled over late in the match when a melee ensued after Paaga tangled with an opponent near the Papua New Guinea technical area.
Paaga’s team-mate Rafael Rocha was shown a straight red card along with a substitute from the opposing bench but the American Samoans held on for a deserved point.
American Samoa coach Rupeni Luvu says a win probably would have been a better result for them.
“We came here looking for the win but obviously to get a draw is great but that’s not what we came here to do. We wanted to win the match but I have to credit the performance of the players. But there are some things we need to work on ahead of our next match.”
The result gives the Rupeni Luvu-coached American Samoa plenty to rave about but for Papua New Guinea the road to New Zealand 2015 looks more difficult.
Papua New Guinea coach Rufer faced the reality of the result with honesty after resting most of his starting eleven from the opening day 2-0 win over the Solomon Islands.
“I trusted in my substitutes today we have about eight boys on the bench because, like everyone else, this competition is five games long, with a game every two days.
“I thought this game was a chance to give some other players a run but American Samoa were deserving of the result and our bench players were not able to prove themselves. I believe this was my mistake and I take the blame for this,” he says.
With the hopes of a nation leaning on the young shoulders of the Fiji U-20 side, they took a positive approach while facing a New Caledonia side facing a must-win scenario.
A tense match that lacked flair in its opening spell, matters soon shifted into another gear when New Caledonia’s Mickael Partodikromo brought a desperate save by Fiji goal keeper Misiwani Nairube.
That moment proved crucial when Samuela Nabenia nailed the opening goal of the match two minutes into the second half.
Tony Tuivuna stepped up to double the score line from the penalty mark on 65 minutes after Saula Waqa was brought down.
Fiji U-20 coach Ravinesh Kumar described the win as a deserving one but says his team cannot afford to rest on its achievements.
“The boys played a good game and on top of that New Caledonia are a good opponent so the result was a good one in the end.
“We could not get a goal in the first half, but in the second, when we came out from the dressing room we fired in one, followed by another,” he says.
“We will take all the remaining games seriously as we have been doing with American Samoa and New Caledonia and now with Papua New Guinea whom we face next.”
Kumar’s opposite number Mathieu Delcroix says Fiji were the better side in the second half.
“Nothing changed after the break, maybe a couple of errors involved with some of the long balls, we know the force of the Fijians.
“They played their game, and they did it well in two attacks with a long ball on the counter and we saw what happened, they scored – that is football,” he says.
Delcroix knows New Caledonia’s dreams of the FIFA U-20 World Cup look remote but he is determined his team will not give up hope just yet.
“We have two defeats and three games still remaining so we will play to the best of our abilities and try and finish on a good note.
“And with three games left why not keep believing in qualification perhaps due to a potential faux pas from one of our adversaries?
“For the next match we’re going to start with some recovery because we’re heading into the third game and it’s starting to become difficult physically for everyone.
“After that, we will continue to give our best and will certainly try to win the next match,” he concluded.
Match Day 3 of the OFC U-20 Championship continues at ANZ Stadium in Suva today May 27, 2014, when Fiji takes on Papua New Guinea at 2.30pm.
In the other two matches, New Caledonia meets Solomon Islands T 4.30pm with American Samoa up against Vanuatu in the late kick-off at 7.30pm.