Cook Islands have earned a considerable advantage over their opponents after claiming a 3-1 victory over American Samoa on Match Day 2 of the 2016 OFC U-17 Championship Preliminary.
Cook Islands position has been helped in part by rivals Tonga and Samoa playing out a 1-1 draw to claim just one of the three available points in their encounter.
Following their opener on Monday Cook Islands coach Richard Anderson spoke of his team’s need to show their best selves on the pitch and he says today’s first half was reminiscent of that nervy first match.
“I certainly wasn’t elated with the first half,” he says.
“But it shows a sign of the boys that at the end of the game they’ve won 3-1 but they’ve all come up to me and apologised. They came here believing in a style of play that we were hoping to show. At the moment we haven’t shown it.
“But I have to give them a lot of credit for their second half. We spent the whole of half-time going through what was required and they delivered that.”
Cook Islands made a swift start to the game with William Napa and Geosah George showing the finer points of their skill-sets in an effort to take an early advantage. But with American Samoa having shuffled captain Gabriel Taumua into the backline and brought Joe Purcell into the middle they had a strong spine that made things difficult for their opponents.
John Ugaitafa was called into action fairly frequently in the first half and his opposite Manaariki Pierre wasn’t without some scares of his own. American Samoa striker Takai Pouli looked threatening on a number of occasions causing trouble behind the backline with his pace.
Conroy Tiputoa’s physical presence makes him a threat at the best of times but when he’s in front of goal he can be lethal as American Samoa found out the hard way.
A poorly executed goal kick allowed Tiputoa to charge into the penalty area with the ball and tuck it past a helpless Ugaitafa to open the scoring. He followed that up less than five minutes later when he powered a header in, finishing off a perfectly delivered corner from Napa.
The two goal advantage didn’t last as long as the Cook Islands were hoping when the ever-present Pouli finished off a brilliant piece of play from American Samoa to keep his side in the game going into the second half.
A double change for Cook Islands at half-time gave the side some fresh legs to rely on and for a sustained period they looked like they would do some real damage to American Samoa but for some poor finishing.
Some late brilliance from Kimiora Ngametua eventually made the victory clear as he wove his way into position to slot low under Ugaitafa with just a minute remaining before the final whistle.
Anderson believes his side has the right mindset to continue their winning ways.
“I can’t fault the boy’s attitude and the courage they’re showing to want to play. At the moment I think the occasion is starting to get to one or two of them, we saw that against Tonga where the first ten minutes were safe.
“Today it started to go that way but we managed to avoid it.”
American Samoa coach Fred Maiava says his side had chances but just didn’t have the finishing once again.
“We had the opportunities but we just couldn’t get them in the goal. We were a little bit off for the first half especially.”
In the evening match it was always going to be a physical demanding encounter for both sides with winning essential heading into the final match day on Friday.
Samoa wasted no time in taking the advantage as Lotial Mano smashed a shot across the goal and into the back of the net just three minutes into the match.
The match became very back-and-forth and at a very high intensity for much of the first half with the teams continuing in pursuit of their objectives. Poor touches plagued both sides which contributed to the constant turning over of possession.
Samoa had Captain Willie Sauiluma to thank for a lot with the midfielder covering the pitch well, dropping deep to collect and going on some dangerous attacks.
To Tonga’s credit, they never put their heads down and continued pressing forward while their own captain Ofa Kite put in an outstanding 90 minutes at the centre of defence.
Timote Moleni’s boys were finally rewarded for their persistency in the 73rd minute when Tevita Kau found the back of the net for the equaliser. That goal turned the heat up on Samoa who were in no way happy to take a draw but neither side was able to break down the other as the clock wound down. Moleni says it was a mid-level performance from his side but that wasn’t from a lack of effort.
“I’m sort of happy, but as you say a draw is better than losing,” Timote says.
“I think it’s like the first game, our main weakness is our finishing. I know the boys are doing their best, but finishing wasn’t good for any of our players.”
For Faaiuaso, coming so close to victory and seeing it slip through their fingers late in the piece was disappointing.
“I’m very disappointed but it’s a game,” he says.
“I want to give credit to Tonga; they performed well through the whole 90 minutes. They really wanted to win, they played well.
“There are just a few positive things from my side. The counter-attack was there but we didn’t score goals, and our keeper saved our team so many times so I’m happy with him and his performance tonight.”
Match Day 2 Results (6th July 2016)
Cook Islands 3 – 1 American Samoa
Samoa 1 -1 Tonga
Match Day 3 Schedule (8th July 2016)
American Samoa vs Tonga – 4:30pm
Cook Islands vs Samoa – 7:00pm