Samoa have signaled their intentions at the 2016 OFC U-20 Championship Preliminary tournament by overpowering neighbors’ American Samoa 5-0, while hosts Tonga and Cook Islands were forced to settle for a 1-1 draw in the other match on the opening day.
Kicking off proceedings against Cook Islands at the Loto-Tonga Soka Centre in Nuku'alofa, host nation Tonga could thank the crossbar that saved them from falling behind in the third minute.
After surviving the early scare the hosts responded through Talatala Po’oi, who forced two brilliant saves from Cook Islands goalkeeper Keegan Inia and smashed rifling shot against the top of the woodwork.
The Tongans thought they took a deserved lead in the 31st minute when a thundering strike by Hemaloto Polovili hit the bottom of the crossbar before the ball bouncing just centimetres in front of the goal-line.
Seven minutes later Cook Islands were awarded a penalty but Tonga goalkeeper Mahe Malafu ensured that the two sides went into the break on level terms by guessing right to deny Thane Bale from the spot.
The hosts were ahead soon after the restart thanks to a 51st minute strike by Po’oi, who didn’t miss this time to pass Inia low down on his right.
With the game opening up there were chances at both ends, with Inia keeping out Polovili’s effort before Dwayne Tiputoa forced a great diving save from Malafu.
Cook Islands kept pressing high searching for an equaliser and they were rewarded in the 77th minute when Conroy Tiputoa passed the keeper with a low shot inside the box.
A minute later the hosts were down to the 10-men as Polovili received his marching orders for a second bookable offence, but they held on for the remainder of the match to earn a share of the points.
Tonga coach Tevita Moala believes it was a keenly contested match between two even sides.
“Cook Islands were a very tough opponent first up, it couldn’t have been any harder for us to open the tournament,” Moala said.
“We had some good chances to win but we were unable to finish them and we have to learn from our mistakes and improve before our next match.”
His Cook Islands counterpart Tuka Tisam said the draw was a fair result.
“We will take the draw,’ he said.
“The Tongans were very physical and organised, they took the lead but my boys worked really hard to get back into the game.”
Samoa were looking to dominate American Samoa from outset and Paul Ualesi’s men took a deserved 12th minute lead through Frank Mariner who tapped in from close range following a good run and a clinical cross from Samuel Malo.
American Samoa have also created a number of opportunities and Steven Fiso almost scored a minute after they fell behind.
His near miss proved costly as the dangerous Malo doubled his side’s advantage following his trademark run on the right flank.
Samoa took a 2-0 lead into the break and they added a third three minutes after the restart through a long range free kick from Timothy Hunt.
Pago Tunupopo was introduced as a substitute and he scored with his first touch of the game to make it 4-0 in the 65th minute. In an eventful cameo Tunupopo received a yellow card in the 74th minute and grabbed his second of the night immediately after. What could have been a heroic afternoon for Tunupopo turned sour in injury time when he received a red for his second booking of the match.
Samoa coach Paul Ualesi was happy with his side’s performance but he couldn’t hide his disappointment about the discipline of some of his players.
“We need to improve our discipline because that could prove costly for us,” Ualesi said. “We give away some unnecessary free kicks and the bookings can hurt us, especially the red card.
“It’s just callous and we have to work on that.”
American Samoa coach Sione Mau admitted his team was second best.
“It was a tough start for us, but we can’t complain because we were outplayed,” said Mau.
“We will need to improve in all departments, defending and finishing if we want to be competitive.”
American Samoa will next face Tonga at 12pm on Friday 24 June, before Samoa’s meeting with the Cook Islands at the Loto-Tonga Soka Centre in Nuku'alofa.