In an incredible encounter in Honiara, Tahiti went a long way to securing Group A’s top spot, but had to endure a spirited fightback from nine-man New Caledonia, who went from being 3-0 down to eventually lose the match 4-3.
After dominating the opening stages, Tahiti deservedly took the lead in the 19th minute when Lorenzo Tehau’s corner was met by the head of his brother Alvin. The advantage was doubled ten minutes later when captain Nicolas Vallar converted a penalty after Georges Gope-Fenepej was sent off for handling Angelo Tchen’s overhead kick in the box.
Three minutes later, Tahiti made it three, with another Tehau brother, Jonathan, getting in on the act – this time setting up Lorenzo to give Eddy Etaeta’s side a 3-0 advantage.
His counterpart, Alain Moizan decided to make a double substitution at half-time, bringing on Jacques Haeko and Emile Bearune. But things went from bad to worse for the New Caledonians when Jean-Patrick Wakanumune was shown a straight red card for a reckless two-footed challenge.
With nothing to lose, New Caledonia went on the attack and pulled it back to 3-2 following goals from Marius Bako and substitute Haeko. Roihau Degage thought he had put the game beyond doubt for Tahiti in the 84th minute, but Dick Kauma’s goal four minutes from time set up a nervy finish. However, Tahiti held firm to claim the bragging rights in the Pacific’s Francophone derby.
In the day’s earlier game, played in temperatures topping 30 degrees Celsius, Vanuatu ran out 5-0 winners over Samoa, in a predictably one-sided encounter. Jean Naprapol, Brian Kaltack, Derek Malas, Robert Tasso and Freddy Vava were all on the scoresheet.
Tahiti, New Caledonia and Vanuatu could all still qualify for the semi-finals, while Samoa are out. Tahiti only need a point from their final game against Vanuatu to ensure progression, while realistically Vanuatu need to defeat the group favourites in order to progress. A victory for New Caledonia against Samoa may not be enough if this happens, as it could come down to goal difference with both teams level on +2 at present. There is still all to play for.
The OFC Nations Cup continues tomorrow at the Lawson Tama Stadium, with the four Group B teams set to play their second game of the tournament. Defending champions New Zealand will face Papua New Guinea at 12.00pm local time before the hosts meet Fiji in one of the key matches of the tournament three hours later.