- *Solomon Islands edge wins over Papua New Guinea to reach OFC play-off *
- *The Solomons will feature in their first play-off final for 12 years *
- *The results end the Russia 2018 campaigns for both PNG and Tahiti *
Two tense victories over Papua New Guinea have lifted Solomon Islands into the Oceanian play-off final for the first time in 12 years. The Solomons won 3-2 at home on Friday, and backed that up with a 2-1 win in Port Moresby on Tuesday. Those results meant an end to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ campaigns of both PNG and 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup participants Tahiti.
Though football is comfortably the No1 sport in the Solomon Islands, the national team have endured a barren period in recent times. After breakthrough results on the road to Germany 2006, the *Bonitos *are now set for the second appearance in the continental play-off. They will meet New Zealand home and away later this year, with the winner to meet the fifth-placed South American nation over two legs for a ticket to Russia 2018.
Four points from two matches was the equation faced by PNG and the Solomons ahead of the final outings. Anything less would have likely allowed Tahiti to cling on to top spot.
Roared on by a typically ebullient home crowd, the Solomons started with a bang in Honiara racing to 2-0 advantage thanks to goals from Atkin Kaua and Benjamin Totori. PNG rallied for a brave comeback as captain Michael Foster and Patrick Aisa both netted, however that merely set the stage for Solomons star forward Micah Lea’Alafa to score a much-heralded winner.
PNG needed to win the return by a large margin to progress and they opened brightly with a goal from prolific striker Raymond Gunemba. However, the mood was dampened almost immediately as defender Felix Komolong was dismissed for handball, and Henry Fa’Arodo equalised from the resultant penalty. Jerry Donga scored what proved to be the winner in the final seconds of the half, much to the disappointment of the home crowd - as well as Tahiti following the action from the other side of the continent. Despite the result, the campaign has seen PNG enjoy unprecedented success, highlighted by a spot in last year’s OFC Nations Cup final.
Meanwhile in Group A, Fiji and New Caledonia met home and away where only pride was on the line, with New Zealand having already shored up top spot. With one eye on the future, the respective coaches fielded relatively experimental sides, with notably Fiji superstar Roy Krishna starting on the bench in both matches. But it was a goal from Krishna that ensured the two teams played out a 2-2 draw in Fiji after New Caledonia blew a two-goal advantage. Les Cagous, however, were more clinical on home turf and a second-half winner from Richard Sele was enough for a tight 2-1 triumph that saw them finish second in the three-team group.
The international career of long-serving Solomon Islands captain Henry Fa’Arodo will continue for at least a few months yet. Fa’Arodo has previously stated this will be his final World Cup campaign, and ironically his equaliser in Port Moresby was crucial in keeping Solo’s campaign alive.
The stat 2 – Red cards proved extremely costly for Papua New Guinea who lost a player in the first half of two of their four matches.