Cook Islands secured an unprecedented second successive win, while one-time whipping boys American Samoa were also victorious to set up a tense three-way finale to Oceania’s Round 1 qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
Cook Islands edged a tough and crucial 1-0 win over regional powerhouse Samoa, while in the late game American Samoa came from behind to outlast Tonga 2-1 leaving the hosts eliminated.
Wednesday’s results at Nuku’Alofa’s Loto-Tonga Soka Centre has Cook Islands top on six points, and needing just a point from Friday’s final outing against American Samoa to secure passage to Round 2 for the first time. Samoa, meanwhile, will need victory in their match against Tonga to maintain qualification ambitions.
The early game was a well-matched affair and saw Cook Islands upset Samoa thanks to a lone Taylor Saghabi strike seen minutes before the interval. The goal proved to be as spectacular as it was crucial, with the free-kick from near the sideline dipping just in time to clip the underside of the crossbar and bounce over the line.
The team has come a long way, and we are changing things little by little.
After the break, Cook Islands could easily have conceded a bizarre own goal as Paavo Mustonen saw his attempted block from the edge of the penalty area loop onto his own bar with the goalkeeper stranded.
Cook Islands, to their credit, defended resolutely and largely kept Samoa’s numerous attacking weapons under control. Drew Sherman's side, one of the world’s smallest nations, had never won a World Cup match until Monday’s 3-0 win over Tonga.
American Samoa, meanwhile, continued to display their new-found status as regional contenders with a hard-working win over Tonga, in what was also their second ever win. Incredibly, following a scoreless first half, all three goals arrived in a four-minute period just after the break.
Tonga went ahead though Sione Uhatahi on 47 minutes, only for American Samoa to reply via the boot of Justin Mana’o, and then take the lead through captain Ramin Ott within a matter of moments with what proved to be the match-winner. It was Ott’s third goal spread over as many World Cup campaigns.
“We really need to come out shooting,” said Ott of Friday’s potentially pivotal final match. “We have to come out even hungrier than we did in 2011 (in the final game). The team has come a long way, and we are changing things little by little.”