Two tightly contested encounters lit up Match Day 1 of the 2016 OFC U-17 Championship Preliminary in Samoa, revealing there will be no easy path to glory in this competition.
Cook Islands opened the tournament with a 3-2 victory over Tonga before hosts Samoa held on to an early lead to secure a 3-0 win over rivals American Samoa.
It wasn’t a pretty win for Cook Islands as they struggled to impose their game against their physical and fleet-footed opponents.
A cautious start to the encounter meant Cook Islands held a lot of possession but they appeared reluctant to progress too far out of their own half and when they did, made silly mistakes that put the defense on the back foot.
Fortunately for Richard Anderson’s charges, Tonga also struggled to settle into the game quickly with similar errors working their way into their game too.
The match remained fairly evenly-matched until the 20-minute mark when an own goal from Tonga handed their opponents the lead. The Cook Islands capitalized as Tonga’s heads went down and a minute later were enjoying a two goal lead after Conroy Tiputoa found the back of the net.
To their credit, Tonga pulled them together and made some reflex-testing attacks of their own.
They were rewarded before the stroke of half-time when Kalakaua Faivailo received on the left before striking the ball past a diving Manaariki Pierre.
Revitalized by the late strike, Tonga returned from the break eager to pull themselves in line with the Cook Islands. Goal scorer Faivailo’s speed caused a lot of problems, but Fonua Taiauli and Tuia Falepapalangi were also on the hunt, putting Pierre to the test on several occasions.
The push for an equalizer left Tonga exposed at the back, something Tiputoa took advantage of as the second half was wrapping up. The striker made a driving run to latch onto a long ball which he turned in for substitute Kimiora Ngametua. A dodge and weave past two defenders was followed up by an unstoppable strike to give Cook Islands a 3-1 lead.
While many believed the game to more or less be complete, there was one final twist as Sean Iona fouled in the box leading to a penalty in the 90th minute. Petuli Tokotaha stepped up to convert in what was virtually the final action of the match.
Cook Islands coach Anderson says while it’s always pleasing to secure a win, there’s plenty of room for improvement.
“I’ll be honest, it’s nice to start the tournament with a win especially with the short turnaround between games and the small number of games, but I know the boys can do better,” he says.
“I think nerves got to them especially in the first 20 minutes, the tempo was very slow and not as high as we were expecting or as it has been in training the last few days.
“Then conceding that goal late in the first half gave Tonga the belief they could get back into the game and we saw that in the second half. They pressed a lot higher and rushed us a lot more and I don’t think we handled it as well as we can.”
For Tonga coach Timote Moleni it was a disappointing score for what was a closely contested match and areas for polishing were certainly identified during the 90 minutes.
“There were times we had possession and pressed well but at the end of the game we didn’t achieve our objective which was to win the game,” he says.
“We need to be more confident and our finishing needs work. We had a lot of chances but we didn’t finish them like we should have.”
The second match of the day pitted Samoa against close rivals American Samoa in what was always likely to be a heated affair.
Buoyed by the home supporters who turned up in their droves, Samoa applied pressure early and after drawing a foul in the penalty area was able to give them an early advantage. It was Captain Willie Sauiluma who stepped up to take the spot kick which he sent down the centre to open the scoring.
A lot of good football was played by both sides but it was largely restricted to the centre of the park with the two teams falling victim to ball chasing and panic clearing at times.
It was very back-and-forth for 20 minutes after the restart before Dilo Tumua opened his account with a stunning strike in the 69th minute. Less than five minutes later he had a brace after he followed up on a fumble from American Samoa goalkeeper John Ugaitafa.
Though clearly keen to add a third to his tally, Tumua’s night ended early when he fouled Joe Purcell – whose injury saw him substituted – and earned his second caution just five minutes after scoring his second.
Samoa coach Desmond Faaiuaso was elated his side could pull through and reward the home crowd for their support.
“The team was a little bit shaky and nervous at the beginning but I’m very happy with the performance.
“Counter-attack is a key part of our game for this tournament and at half-time I said I wasn’t happy with how we were performing in this area.
“The second half was much better with the high pressing and speed of our counter attack.”
The loss was tough to take for Fred Maiava who believes his side’s performance isn’t accurately reflected in the final result.
“The first half we were a little bit off, a few mistakes crept in and we were really punished by the mistakes we made.