It was a tale of contrasting fortunes at the South Pacific Games Samoa 2007 on Wednesday. Fiji and New Caledonia earned a place at the Gold Medal match and in doing so secured a place at the next stage of Oceanian Zone qualification for South Africa 2010. For Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, however, a winner-takes-all match on Friday will determine whether they win bronze and the right to face New Zealand and the gold and silver winners in the 2008 OFC Nations Cup.
The first game of the day brought a bigger goals tally and more drama than the second. Favourites to go through were the Solomon Islands, who had won all of their four matches in the tournament so far, but they were up against New Caledonia, who shocked the Fijians on Monday by holding them to a 1-1 draw. In a see-saw encounter at the Toleafoa J.S. Blatter Complex in Apia, it was the underdogs who eventually had their day, much to the chagrin of the Solomons.
New Caledonia enjoyed the better of the opening stages, with Poulidor Toto rattling the crossbar and forcing a spectacular save from Fred Hale inside the opening ten minutes. It was no surprise, therefore, to see the No18 play a significant role in the game's opening goal, he squared the ball to Iamel Kabeu who thundered a shot into the back of the net.
Six minutes later, the Solomon Islands drew level. Judd Molea's free-kick was met by Henry Fa'arodo whose downward header bounced over Ounemoa. One all was how it stayed until the interval, but the game's third goal - and the Solomons' second - was not long in coming. Two minutes after the restart another Molea free-kick brought another headed goal, this time from Commins Menapi.
New Caledonia grabbed an equaliser in the 54th minute. In a reversal of the first goal, Kabeu fed Toto who fires the ball past Hale's outstretched right arm.
Referee Job Ponis Minan was a busy man in the final stages as he sent off two Solomon Island players for two bookable offences. Alick Maemae was the first to be given his marching orders in the 68th minute, while ten minutes later Gideon Omokirio joined him for an early bath, giving Didier Chambaron's side a significant advantage.
They made it count with the last kick of the game when Yohann Mercier put his side 3-2 ahead, giving them a chance to grab the gold on Friday.
However, with Vanuatu looking the more likely to score in the first half, there was a definite touch of fortune about the Fijians opening goal. It came when Pita Baleitoga's strike from 40-yards deflected off Fedy Vava and spun into the net.
Fiji's advantage was doubled in the 66th minute when Osea Vakatalesau scored his tenth of the tournament from the penalty spot. Three minutes later Roy Krishna took his tally to four when his left-foot finish rocketed past Chikau Mansale.
On Friday, Fiji and New Caledonia will meet in a reprise of the match from two days ago when nothing could separate the sides. Both teams have now made it through to the next stage of FIFA World Cup ™ qualification, but there is still a nervous game ahead of the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu in order to claim progression and a coveted bronze medal.