New Zealand are heading to the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017, but only after edging a gallant Papua New Guinea on penalties in the OFC Nations Cup final in Port Moresby.
PNG narrowly had the better of an end-to-end scoreless contest only to succumb 4-2 in the shoot-out, with the impressive New Zealand goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic making two blocks to break local hearts. It is a record fifth Nations Cup crown for the All Whites and a first since 2008.
A large and noisy crowd were on hand at Sir John Guise Stadium in the capital hoping to witness history in PNG’s first Nations Cup final. New Zealand made three enforced changes with captain Chris Wood absent for personal reasons, while Luka Prelevic and defender Themi Tzimopoulos were suspended. Attacker Kosta Barbarouses was the main inclusion from the All Whites’ side that battled to a 1-0 semi-final win against New Caledonia.
While the match remained an arm-wrestle it was the home side who looked more likely to score, as strong winds swirled around the stadium.
The closest either side came to breaking the deadlock was when PNG's Raymond Gunemba clipped the crossbar with a cross from a tight angle in the second half. Earlier, team-mate Nigel Dabinyaba let fly from long range with New Zealand goalkeeper Marinovic forced to make a diving save in one of the few highlights of the first half.
New Zealand brought on two of the key attacking weapons in Marco Rojas and Jeremy Brockie for the second half as they sought to take advantage of any tiredness among PNG’s all-amateur ranks. The Kiwi’s main threat generally came from set-pieces, and they almost went ahead on the hour mark as Rory Fallon got on the end of a free-kick only for his goal-bound header to be cleared from by Alwin Komolong.
PNG goalkeeper Ronald Warisan fumbled a long New Zealand throw-in – one of many in the match – only to escape what would have been a disastrous error with ten minutes remaining. Warisan was then forced into a brave save amid a goalmouth scramble in the final minutes, earning a head knock in the process.
The always-lively Tommy Semmy had a chance to win it with the last kick of the 90 minutes but clipped an effort wide as New Zealand scrambled to clear a free-kick.
It was New Zealand who looked stronger as extra time commenced and acting-captain Fallon headed marginally over in an excellent opening for the All Whites. Brockie looked set to score with the final moment of first-half extra-time but couldn’t quite get over his header from almost point-blank range following a Michael McGlinchey corner, leaving the scoreboard empty after 120 minutes.
Koriak Upaiga saw PNG’s first penalty saved thanks to an excellent Marinovic block, only for his side to briefly draw level as Brockie then pushed his penalty wide for the 2008 champions. However, PNG’s Gunemba saw his penalty finger-tipped onto the post by Marinovic, allowing Rojas to slot the winning spot-kick.
“It was a very difficult game, all credit to them, but one of the toughest games I have been involved in,” said New Zealand skipper Rory Fallon.
“It was very nerve-wracking out there, with their counter-attacks. Our defence and the whole team was unreal. By the end, everyone was knackered and hobbling towards penalties.”
New Zealand will now compete in their first FIFA Confederations Cup since South Africa 2009. Papua New Guinea will take solace being one of the top six nations at the eight-team OFC Nations Cup, all of whom will advance to Stage 3 of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying, with Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Solomon Islands and Tahiti also set to feature.