New Caledonia became the first side to book their place in the last four as the third round of matches at the South Pacific Games in Samoa ended with five teams left vying for the three available spots alongside New Zealand at the OFC Nations Cup.
The situation appears particularly clear-cut in Group A, where Fiji's grip on second place behind New Caledonia was strengthened further today when Tahiti fell victim to the tournament's biggest shock thus far. Few, certainly, had expected the Tahitians, edged out 1-0 by New Caledonia in their group opener, to encounter any significant problems in inflicting defeat on a Tuvalu side thumped 16-0 by Fiji in the first round of matches.
Yet despite dominating the day's opening encounter, Gerard Kautai's side saw their bid to reach the semi-finals falter thanks to a dramatic late equaliser from Viliamu Sekifu as Tuvalu snatched a 1-1 draw. The result represented a remarkable achievement for the tiny island nation, who showed the same resilience they had displayed in restricting New Caledonia to a 1-0 win just a couple of days after that Fijian humiliation.
Tahiti were virtually encamped in Tuvalu's half for much of the match, but some resolute defending and agile goalkeeping kept the favourites at bay until the stroke of half-time. Even then, it was widely expected that Axel Williams' powerful headed opener in first half injury time would signal the opening of the floodgates after the break, but Tuvalu continued to hold out and, with just two minutes remaining, received their reward when substitute Viliamu Sekifu fired home to spark wild scenes of celebration.
A share of the spoils left both sides five points behind Fiji and eight adrift of New Caledonia, who continued their unspectacular progress with another routine victory over the Cook Islands. The Fijians could yet snatch pole position in Group A, however, as they hold a game in hand over the leaders and also boast a vastly superior goal difference to a side who have made the net bulge on just five occasions compared to their closest rivals' 20.
Nevertheless, New Caledonia, who are competing in FIFA World Cup ™ qualifiers for the first time, comfortably followed up their single-goal wins over Tahiti and Tuvalu by cruising to a 3-0 win over Tim Jerks' Cook Islands, clinching a place in the last four with a game to spare. There was again much for Jerks to be encouraged by in his side's spirited performance, but a double from the impressive Iamel Kabeu and a 50th-minute penalty from Pierre Wajoka quickly put paid to their hopes of pulling off an upset.
Jerks' New Caledonian counterpart, Didier Chamberon, meanwhile, was pleased to see an improvement in his side's attitude. "There was a lot of satisfaction tonight because we played a good match," he said. "This was a very important result because our last match against Tuvalu was very disappointing."
Hosts stay in the running
While Fiji look odds-on to join New Caledonia in advancing from Group A, the battle for semi-final places in Group B is still too close to call with three sides locked on the six-point mark.
Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands remain the favourites, but despite having played a game more than their two rivals, Samoa will simply be delighted to have stayed in the hunt after eking out a tense 2-1 win over Tonga. The picture had appeared bleak for the host nation after a 4-0 opening day defeat to Vanuatu, but after bouncing back in the second round of matches with a 7-0 win over neighbouring American Samoa, they did just enough to see off a tough Tongan outfit today.
The visitors, who performed an impressive 'haka' ahead of the match, certainly gave as good as they got in a keenly-contested first half that remained goalless until the first minute of added time, when Desmond Faaiuaso pounced to spark cheers from the noisy home support.
However, it took just seven minutes of the second period for those same fans to be silenced when Unaloto Feao capitalised on some slack Samoan defending to restore parity. The hosts' woes deepened 10 minutes later when influential captain Chris Cahill picked up a booking that rules him out of their crucial match against the Solomon Islands, leaving coach Falevi Umutaua to wonder if this wasn't to be his side's day.
With seven minutes left, however, and the game ticking down to what would have been a costly draw, Lionel Taylor popped up with a superb turn and shot to win the match for Samoa and send the supporters home happy. "I felt great," said the goal hero. "It was a tough match but I gave the best I could like all the team for Samoa. Tonight, it was very important that the home crowd helped us."
The hosts must be congratulated on keeping the race alive, but there can be no doubt that they remain outsiders to split the Solomon Islands and a Vanuatu side who, in the group's earlier match, dished out an emphatic 15-0 defeat to American Samoa. The basement boys actually succeeded in holding their opponents for the opening 19 minutes, but with half-time approaching and the score at 3-0, a needless red card for captain Terence Sinapati prompted a spectacular collapse.
The main beneficiaries were Francois Sakama, who bagged a hat-trick, Etienne Mermer, who bettered that with four, and half-time substitute Seule Soromon, four of whose five goals came in a frantic final nine minutes. Captain Moise Poida, Anrew Chicirua and Tom Philip Tomake also found the target.
Vanuatu's top-of-the-table duel with the Solomon Islands is now sure to be the highlight of Saturday's fourth round of matches that also sees Tonga face American Samoa, Tuvalu tangle with the Cook Islands, and Fiji attempt to secure a semi-final place against Tahiti.