Papua New Guinea have qualified for the OFC U-17 Championship semi-finals for the first time in the nation’s history after a 2-1 victory over Tahiti dashed the hosts hopes of a dream qualification on home soil.
The Melanesians join New Caledonia who progress in the top spot after beating Vanuatu 3-2 in the day’s earlier match at Stade Pater.
Harrison Kamake, Papua New Guinea’s coach, was almost completely lost for words following the final whistle.
“This is a dream come true for the boys,” he said of their historic victory.
“It’s their first time in this tournament and I’m really happy for them and I thank them and commend them for the effort today.”
It wasn’t an easy task for Kamake’s side as they took on not only a much-favoured Tahitian side, but also their boisterous home crowd.
Tahiti seemed to have the match under control from the outset and it took just ten minutes for them to open the scoring courtesy of an unmarked Eddy Kaspard who latched onto a long ball and finished with aplomb.
Their opponents had a couple of advances into the Tahitian half during the first period, but little that really troubled goalkeeper Moana Pito. However, in the second half the Melanesians seemed more determined in their chase of an historic result.
The first sign that things were on the up for Papua New Guinea came with the equaliser in the 71st minute when Jonathan Allen neatly placed the ball past a Pito.
Barthy Kerobin forced a fantastic save from Pito, who was impressive between the sticks, in the 87th minute, but the corner that followed had the captain and his backline beaten.
Emmanuel Simongi leaped high to connect with the delivery and headed home a winner that sent the Papua New Guinea bench into raptures. Despite their best efforts Tahiti couldn’t pull themselves back in line.
Tahiti have finished second in four of the last five U-17 tournaments so to lose out on home soil was a major disappointment from Patrice Flaccadori’s perspective.
“Every time we’ve competed we’ve made the finals and this time, not even the semis so it’s a huge disappointment for us.
“In the first half I thought we were in good stead. We found our rhythm in terms of our control of the ball,” he said.
“But in terms of our finishing, we missed a lot of opportunities and we let chances go. The Papua New Guineans were more efficient in front of goal and scored two goals because of it.”
Kamake said his side’s mentality is what drove their success this evening.
“We had the fighting spirit towards the back end of the game,” he said.
“Our defence contributed a lot to the overall play and it helped us in the end.”
New Caledonia dominated their match from the outset but at the same time were a little bit lucky to scrape through with 3-2 victory as Vanuatu made a stunning comeback in the final ten minutes of the earlier match.
Something coach Michel Clarque doesn’t want to see happen again now that his side is through to an all-important semi-final.
“This was a very important match for us – either we go home or we do something. Luckily we scored,” he said of his team’s efforts.
“We wanted to make the semi-finals. It was a good performance from the side, especially in respect to the preparation we had.”
The decision to switch the matches to Stade Pater, due to adverse weather conditions affecting the field at Mahina didn’t seem to faze either side as they adapted well to their grander surroundings.
Nippy striker Raymond Luewadria and Lionel Thahnaena were confident in possession, driving through their opponent’s backline and keeping Vanuatu’s goalkeeper Dgen Leo busy.
After some sustained pressure from New Caledonia they eventually got their lead in the 37th minute when Lionel Thahnaena scored a brilliant solo effort, weaving past several defenders before smashing past Leo.
As the match ticked over to the 70th minute things came together nicely for the mini-Cagous who as substitute Paul Gope-Fenepej was left unmarked at the near post to head home a corner. Two minutes later referee George Time was pointing to the penalty spot after Vita Longue was brought down by the keeper.
Bernard Iwa stepped up drilling low and to the left of an outstretched Leo to take the score to 3-0.
Celebrations were short-lived however as New Caledonia seemed to implode in the final ten minutes giving Vanuatu a chance to get back in the match.
Subtitute Jayson Tari was the first to damage his opponent’s clean sheet when he fired in a stunner in the 84th minute. The referee was then pointing to the penalty spot for the second time in the half after the ball was handled in the box.
Abert Vanva got behind the ball and fired wide, but Vanuatu had a second chance when Time demanded a retake after the keeper Une Kecine moved too early from his line. Captain Rhydley Napau took over from his teammate and battered the ball past the keeper to bring his side just one goal from an equaliser.
Despite their best efforts as the match entered additional time, it wasn’t to be and New Caledonia scrapped through with a win to secure their semi-final berth.
“I don’t have any regrets about this match at all,” Vanuatu coach Rocky Neveserveth said.
“We are fortunate to be able to come here and compete and also to learn.
“In terms of the goals, I always believed we would score, even that we would equalise. Unfortunately, the journey ends here for us.”
Clarque was quick to credit New Caledonia’s opponent and the obvious skills the players possess.
“Vanuatu is such a difficult side to interpret. When you play a team like New Zealand or Tahtii everything is by the book, we know relatively, how they are going to play,” he said.
“But with Vanuatu there’s always a level of improvisation, and Papua New Guinea is the same. It’s great but it makes it hard to always implement the style of game we want to play.”