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Fiji scare the Kiwis

Cook Islands once again held their own to keep the hosts to just a one goal lead. Having lost three of their starting line-up over the past three matches coach Tuka Tisam’s options on the bench have dwindled with back-up goalkeeper Antonio Tuaiti now sporting an outfielders jersey. Vanuatu stamped an early mark on proceedings, dominating possession and forcing Cook Islands goalkeeper Keegan Inia into overtime as he was peppered with shots from the host’s attackers. Vanuatu finally took the lead 15 minutes into the match when Alex Saniel tapped home a ball from Ruben Frank.
Frank put himself on the board in the 35th minute after pulling back in the box and smashing low. The lead was extended to three in the 59th following a powerful strike from Etienne Naieu. However, the Cook Islands may have been down, but they certainly weren’t out, coming back with a goal of their own – and their first of the tournament – when substitute Te-Ava Wichman bundled a loose ball into the net from close range following a Wiremu Temata free kick in the 87th minute.
Cook Islands coach Tuka Tisam says seeing his side score their first goal of the tournament was a proud moment as was the dying moments when they came close to putting away a second.
“I was really proud of the way the boys performed. They fought really hard, right throughout the whole game,” Tisam says. “It was hard because we were playing against a quality side that had a lot of possession and to score a goal against them was a great moment for our team. We came here to compete and I think we’ve been able to do that despite the results. We’re looking forward to our last game now and we’ll come out battling to try to finish on a good note.”
Vanuatu manager Antony Pisano says the Cook Islands defended well and made things very difficult for his side as they chased their first win of the tournament.
“It was good to finally get a win. We definitely need to work on our finishing because it’s been a problem for the boys for quite a while,” Pisano says. “We’ve identified that as an area we need to improve in and there’s a lot of work to be done. We’re playing quite well so if we can concentrate on our finishing and keep playing like we have been then we’ll be looking to take a win from our last match and score a few goals.”
In the day’s second match Papua New Guinea kept New Caledonia in check for much of the game, eventually going on to lose 1-0. New Caledonia looked much more subdued than usual as they struggled in the searing midday heat and humidity. Despite this, the side managed to launch several promising attacks which finally proved fruitful in the 33rd minute Valentin Nykeine scored the game’s only goal. Papua New Guinea also had a number of chances, the best ones coming from set plays. Captain John Ray took two free kicks in short succession from just outside the box which he blasted over the wall and towards the back of the net, but both times was thwarted by New Caledonia goalkeeper Thomas Schmidt who punched the ball clear of danger. New Caledonia continued to apply pressure to Papua New Guinea’s defence which eventually proved too much for Joshua Talau who given his marching orders in the 90th minute after receiving his second yellow card of the match.
Papua New Guinea coach Bobby Morris says his side stuck to the game plan and applied pressure throughout the full 90 minutes to keep the margin tight.
“I’m definitely happy with the performance today. We needed to hold New Caledonia who are very close to New Zealand and Vanuatu,” Morris says. “To win would have been a bonus, but just to close the margin was very good and I’m happy. My game plan was to build up from the back, which is the same football that New Caledonia plays, build up and penetrate through the front. That was the plan and I think it was carried out, the guys were confident on the ball.”
New Caledonia coach Kamali Fitialeata was pleased his side could overcome a number of hurdles to ultimately get the win.
“Having seen the weather today, I think that I couldn’t have asked for more from my boys. It was very, very hot. I have a number of players who yesterday got food poisoning,” Fitialeata says. “I have two players who were hospitalised, some players didn’t stop vomiting all day and so I can understand that today they haven’t been able to play as they perhaps needed to. However, the essential is there, we got a victory in the end and it will be very hard to finish this tournament.”
In the final encounter of the day, New Zealand took on Fiji in what many expected would be a relatively easy game for the Young All Whites. However Fiji have consistently fronted every challenge at this tournament and this match proved no different. New Zealand took the lead just 18 minutes into the match when Elijah Neblett lost his marker allowing him to latch onto an Andrew Blake park and bury the ball in the net from close range. Fiji came back from the break firing and drew level in the 55th minute after Ravnit Chand lifted the ball over the approaching Kiwi goalkeeper Sam Copp and into the net. New Zealand continued to press forward but all their shots were either hitting the posts, or going straight at Fiji goalkeeper Masiwani Nairube. New Zealand coach Darren Bazeley made a strategic double substitution in the 63rd minute bringing on strike-force Monty Patterson and Stuart Holthusen to immediate effect. An Andre De Jong volley from the edge of the area took a deflection off Fiji goal scorer Ravnit Chand to put the Young All Whites back in the lead in the 70th minute before Holthusen was brought down in the box allowing fellow substitute Patterson to tuck a penalty into the bottom right corner four minutes later. For Fiji it was too little too late when they earned a consolation penalty of their own which captain Iosefo Verevou slotted home in the dying minutes of the match.
Bazeley says it wasn’t an easy afternoon out for his side, but they never expected it to be a straightforward match.
“It was our fourth game of the tournament and these are humid condition – we have some tired players and are carrying a few sicknesses and injuries,” Bazeley says. “But we put a team out there well capable of winning the game and they came through. Fiji made it pretty tough for us at times and came back into the game but we got a good result in the end. “We could have done things better and we had enough chances to win by more if we’d been more clinical. And that’s what happens, if you don’t take your early chances then you do let teams stay in the game. That’s probably my only criticism today, we let Fiji stay in the game when we should have buried it early.”
Fiji coach Kamal Swamy says his side had a game plan, and they worked accordingly to that which paid off when they equalised and brought themselves back into contention.
“I think the boys played very well and stuck to our instructions. Unfortunately, the second goal went in for New Zealand and that demoralised our players,” Swamy says. “I think we were guilty of ball watching a bit in defence, we talked about how we have to follow the man instead but these are young players and they are bound to make mistakes. We managed to score two goals against New Zealand which is a good sign.”
The OFC U-17 Championship returns on Thursday when New Zealand take on Papua New Guinea at 9.30am before Cook Islands encounter Fiji at 12.30pm before the tournament’s final match between New Caledonia and Vanuatu taking place at 3.30pm.

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