Oceania's 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifiers have kicked off in impressive fashion, highlighted by tight matches and a significantly improved standard in comparison to the same stage four years ago. Pre-event favourites Samoa ultimately triumphed, but it was by the slimmest of margins in a three-matchday format which allowed little margin for error.

Samoa shared a three-way tie for top spot, only edging American Samoa by a single goal with the victor’s identity in the balance until the final kick of the tournament’s final match. Cook Islands opened the final day needing just a point to eliminate Samoa. However their 2-0 defeat against American Samoa proved of no value to either side, much to the joy of the nervous Samoa players riding every tackle and goalscoring opportunity on the sidelines at the Loto-Tonga Soka Centre in Tonga.

Samoa now progress to Stage 2, where they will be grouped with reigning continental champions Tahiti, 2012 runners-up New Caledonia and the rapidly improving Papua New Guinea in an eight-team tournament. This stage will double as the OFC Nations Cup, and thus passage to the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017 is also up for grabs.

The victors
Samoa had initially seemed set for unexpected elimination, having suffered rare defeat against a Polynesian opponent, going down 1-0 to Cook Islands. The team enjoyed only modest preparation but still managed to progress, albeit with a dose of luck. A dynamic and pacy attack featuring the evergreen Desmond Faaiuaso, new face Andrew Mobberley and Silao Malo proved to be a constant danger, and this trio's goals ultimately proved pivotal.

The challengers
American Samoa, along with Cook Islands, showed marked improvement boosted by a significant number of recent recruits from the diaspora. For the runners-up, the tournament was a triumph in every respect, bar the league ladder. A host of USA-based players lined up, with American Samoa boasting an impressive ball-playing midfield, providing definitive evidence that their days as continental whipping boys has been consigned to history.

Cook Islands will also undoubtedly take pride from their achievements, which included a maiden World Cup win outside of the Pacific Games. But there will also be regret that they let top spot slip from their grasp at the 11th hour. A highly organised outfit under young Welsh coach Drew Sherman, Cook Islands didn’t concede a goal until the final half-hour of the tournament. Even then, it took a stunning long-range strike to end their unblemished run. Their campaign nevertheless represented a dramatic improvement for one of the world’s smallest nations, who picked just a single point from a possible nine last time around.

Host nation Tonga lost all three games, scoring just once. And while they appeared off the pace on occasions, they were also extremely unlucky not to score several more goals. The only side not to line up with overseas-based players, Tonga struggled a little for depth. Their squad featured the tournament’s oldest player – the still impressive 40-year-old Kilifi Uele – as well as the youngest in 15-year-old Anthony Likiliki.

The player
The ageless Desmond Faaiuaso remains Samoa’s most dynamic attacking weapon and the team’s leader. Though he debuted way back in 2001 as a 17-year-old, the 31-year-old Faaiuaso has lost little of his trademark pace, and still plays with verve and high energy. His influence will be key if Samoa are to make an impact in the next stage.

The stat
2
– American Samoa and Cook Islands both recorded two wins, setting new benchmarks. American Samoa had won just one game previously, while Cook Islands broke their World Cup drought.

The words
“We have a young team, and with a little more experience and a few additions we will be even better next time. My hopes and expectations (for the next World Cup cycle) are high.”
Larry Mana’o, American Samoa coach