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New Zealand edge ahead of the pack

while the Cook Islands were beaten 1-0 by Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu and Fiji drew their midday match 1-1.
After a tough opening day which saw them go down 9-0 against a strong New Zealand side, the Cook Islands rallied in the opening match of day two action, shutting down the swift attack of Papua New Guinea to hold them to a 1-0 victory.

Both sides had a number of opportunities in the first half although Papua New Guinea were the more dominant side. Following the break Papua New Guinea needed just 11 minutes to get ahead when Steven Inia hit a low shot into the far corner from inside the box. The Cook Islands defence closed ranks making things difficult for Papua New Guinea who were unable to extend their lead finishing with just a one-goal advantage.

Cook Islands coach Tuka Tisam can be pleased with his side’s performance as they didn’t allow the disappointment of day one to weigh them down.

“I thought we played really well, our defensive shape was good and we had some good counter-attacks. We were looking to score a goal from our set pieces and we nearly did,” Tisam says. “We have come here to fight all the way to the end and that’s what the boys did today so I’m really proud of them. We went back to the drawing board and moved some players to fit in with our shape and I think this is a very good result for Cook Islands football.”

Papua New Guinea coach Bobby Morris says he is pleased his side’s hard work could earn them the three points.

“Before we came to the tournament we were written off but I have been very happy with the performances and it was good to get our first win today. We were a bit disappointed not to score more goals but back home during our preparations we worked a lot on the defensive side of our game and we need to work more on the attack now,” Morris says. “But the onus is on the players to turn defence into attack and if they had a bit more confidence up front we could have scored some more goals.”

In the day’s second match-up hosts Vanuatu took on Fiji and despite dominating the first half and having a wealth of opportunities, the home side sent most of their shots off-target, much to the dismay of the vocal spectators.

A clash between Vanuatu defender Jaison Thomas and Fiji’s Kelvin Naidu saw both leave the field, and the hosts were unlucky when Thomas was deemed unable to return. Fiji held on, despite some relentless pressure on their defence from a Vanuatu side desperate for the advantage, and the two side entered the break locked at 0-0. Fiji came back with a vengeance in the second period and it paid off just five minutes into the half when they earned a free-kick deep in Vanuatu’s half. Raees Rafiq lofted a perfectly weighted ball which was neatly headed down into the goal by Fiji captain Iosefo Verevou. Vanuatu continued to take every chance they were offered with an equaliser finally coming in the 83rd minute through Remy Kalsrap.

Vanuatu manager Antony Pisano says Vanuatu came back through sheer determination to get a point, if not a win.

“We just kept our shape and we didn’t panic. The game plan worked and we were just a little bit unlucky with the goal we conceded and again I guess we were punished because we didn’t finish,” Pisano says. “I think we dominated the game but just didn’t put that ball in the net. The crowd were again our 12th man so we were quite happy for the crowd support and hope the people of Santo will all be back on Sunday.

The final match between New Caledonia and New Zealand started slow but it didn’t take the Young All Whites long to put one away with Elijah Neblett powering a shot off the post and into the net in the 12th minute. New Caledonia had several good chances but their failure to capitalise would come back to haunt them in the second half as New Zealand stayed calm and in control. Alex Rufer put one away just a minute after the break when he made a solo run through the heart of the Caledonian defence before tucking the ball neatly past Thomas Schmidt in the goal. His second came in the 71st minute when he latched on to a loose ball. Monty Patterson continued his run for the tournament’s Golden Boot when he fired home a free kick from outside the box to give the Kiwi’s their fourth goal and wrap up the match in the 78th minute.

New Caledonia coach Kamali Fitialeata says the challenge of taking on New Zealand may have been just a little too much for his side on the day.

“Congratulations to the New Zealand team who were very accurate in their finishing today – a chance, a goal. We had some opportunities of our own and didn’t put them away and that was the difference,” Fitialeata says. “In football, those who win are those who get goals. They managed to get four and we got none which is too bad for us. We cannot be content when we have lost. We can only regret the heavy reality of football which is to score goals, which we didn’t do.”

For New Zealand coach Darren Bazeley the match was difficult as expected, but his side stuck to the game plan to come out on top.

“That was a really tough game and I have to give credit to the boys because they saw the game plan through and that was as professional a performance from a group of young players that I’ve ever seen,” Bazeley says. “We kept our defensive structure really well and countered with good pace. We scored some good goals but overall we matched the tempo and the physicality of New Caledonia and I felt our shape counter-acted what they were trying to do really well.”

The OFC U-17 Championship returns on Sunday when Fiji takes on Papua New Guinea at 9.30am before New Caledonia encounter Cook Islands at 12.20pm with the final match between hosts Vanuatu and defending champions New Zealand taking place at 3.30pm.

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