Fiji's chances of reaching the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa ™ took a severe dent as Juan Carlos Buzzetti's side surrendered a 2-0 lead to draw 3-3 with South Pacific Games football gold medalists New Caledonia in the OFC Nations Cup at Govind Park today.
Valerio Nawatu gave the home side the perfect start after just two minutes and Youngheart Manawatu striker Osea Vakatalesau extended their lead on 27 minutes, leaving Didier Chambaron's team with a mountain to climb. Climb they did, however, as goals from Ramon Gjamaci and substitute Mael Kaudre put the visitors level on 83 minutes. Vakatalesau restored Fiji's advantage on 86 minutes only for AS Magenta striker Michel Hmae to make it 3-3 straight from the kick-off.
The result damaged Fiji's hopes of progressing to South Africa 2010, with Buzzetti's team winless after two home matches. Vanuatu's loss to New Zealand at Port Vila Municipal Stadium means that New Caledonia have emerged as the Kiwis' most likely obstacle in their pursuit of a FIFA World Cup play-off against the fifth-placed side in the Asian preliminaries.
The fixtures for the next round of matches will be reversed, with New Zealand playing host to Vanuatu at Westpac Trust Stadium in Wellington on Wednesday 21 November and New Caledonia hosting Fiji in Noumea on the same day. New Caledonia and New Zealand both remain unbeaten and while the former have a game in hand, the Kiwis have now taken six points from two away matches to hold a commanding position in the group.
It took a winner from substitute David Mulligan deep in injury time to ensure New Zealand escaped Vanuatu with three vital FIFA World Cup qualifying points. Mulligan's header in the fourth minute of injury time completed a Kiwi comeback started by a 53rd-minute Shane Smeltz goal, which had cancelled out Jean Nako Naprapol's 27th-minute opener.
Trailing 1-0 at half-time, Smeltz's fourth goal in his last three internationals put New Zealand back on level terms, before Mulligan denied the hosts a share of the spoils in the closing moments.
Both sides carved out a multitude of opportunities with both goalkeepers in superb form, in particular Chikau Mansale, who pulled of a triple save from Smeltz, Tim Brown and Leo Bertos. New Zealand's Mark Paston responded in kind just a few minutes into the second half when he stopped a vicious Fenedy Masauvakalo shot from just inside the penalty area and then parried a Seule Soromon header away with a one-handed save.
Paston may have halted those attacks, but the Wellington Phoenix goalie knew little about substitute Moise Poida's rasping, 18-yard drive which smacked the face of the New Zealand crossbar before flying to safety. The action was unrelenting and Mansale distinguished himself yet again when a near-post cross from Leo Bertos saw the Tapuji FC goalkeeper fling himself headlong at Duncan Oughton to pluck the ball off the Columbus Crew midfielder's head.
It was a sensational save but in executing one of match's most acrobatic plays, Mansale injured himself, rising only to throw the ball into the crowd before crumpling to the deck in agony. Vanuatu coach Robert Calvo had no choice but to send on Mansale's uncle, David Chilia, who kissed his fallen nephew on the cheek as he raced on to help his country.
Mansale's injury accounted for much of the five added minutes and it proved long enough for New Zealand to steal the points. A deep cross to the far post from James Pritchett prompted Chilia to race off his line, only for the ball to evade his grasp and fall kindly to the unmarked Mulligan, who nodded into an unguarded net to silence the home crowd.