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Update: OFC qualifiers, Stage 2, Day 5 - Super Solomons cause a sensation in Oceania
by Paul Marcuccitti
Tahiti 2 Vanuatu 1 (HT 1-1)
Fiji 0 New Zealand 2 (HT 0-1)
Solomon Islands 2 Australia 2 (HT 1-0)
All week I’ve been singing the praises of the team from the Solomon Islands. So much so that I wouldn’t blame you if you thought I’d been a bit over the top. But now, you must surely realise that I haven’t been indulging in some misty-eyed fantasy, trying to tell some sort of fairytale story that is nothing close to reality.
Look at the score again: Solomon Islands 2 Australia 2. (And, of course, despite the fact that the Solomon Islands is listed first, the match was played in Australia.)
With the 2006 World Cup finals a full two years away, New Zealand is out. Out of the Oceania Nations Cup; out of next year’s Confederations Cup. OUT.
That great inevitability – Australia and New Zealand, New Zealand and Australia – is no more. The big two have not had anyone upset the apple cart since the 1990 World Cup cycle (when Israel was part of the Oceania World Cup qualifiers).
It really happened. The Solomons have now qualified for two home-and-away play-offs with Australia: one in October to decide matters for Oceania and one next year to decide which team will play the 5th team in South America for a spot at Germany 2006.
And they did it the right way. Needing a draw against Australia due to New Zealand’s victory over Fiji, the Solomons took the game to the Socceroos by playing purposeful, attacking football. At no stage could they be accused of massing players behind the ball in the hope of holding out for a draw. Even after Commins Menapi’s 76th minute goal levelled the match at 2-2, the islanders continued to push forward. Fantastic.
When the final whistle blew, I felt privileged to witness images that will stay with me for a long time. Never have I seen a group of players so incredibly happy – you deserve it guys and thanks for the memory. It’s what our game is all about.
From the start, the Solomons showed they weren’t overawed. Yes, Australia was under-strength. Yes, the Socceroos had already qualified for the next phase. But the Solomons were underdogs nonetheless. They fired their first warning in the fifth minute when midfielder Jack Samani tried his luck from long range after a cross from Alick Maemae. Five minutes later, Batram Suri shot from a narrow angle but Aussie ‘keeper Zeljko Kalac was untroubled.
In the 20th minute, Jack Samani played Commins Menapi in but the striker’s effort went over the bar. Within seconds, Paul Kakai Jnr had another shot for the Solomons but it too went over the crossbar. The islanders refused to sit back.
The Socceroos’ first half performance was as insipid as the Solomons’ was impressive. The first real action at the other end didn’t come until the 25th minute when full back Jade North crossed and Tim Cahill brought the ball under control in the penalty box. However the Millwall midfielder, who has been so impressive this week, was unable to get in a shot as defenders crowded him.
In the 31st minute, Alex Brosque rose to head a Josip Skoko free kick but he was just wide. Skoko was captaining the Socceroos as Tony Vidmar had flown back to Britain for the birth of his second child.
The Socceroos were playing a little better now and in the 37th minute, a fine shot by Brett Emerton was well saved by Solomons’ goalkeeper Felix Ray Jnr. Two minutes later, a Batram Suri cross from a short corner flew beyond the far post and missed everyone. Everyone, that is, except Commins Menapi, who had an opening but seemed to expect that Zeljko Kalac would claim the ball. As Kalac missed, the ball just hit the surprised Menapi and went out for a goal kick.
In the 41st minute, an Alex Brosque effort was blocked after he cut inside from his wing and shot. A minute later, Tim Cahill teed Max Vieri up but he couldn’t find the target.
Action swung again to the other end as the South Pacific Pelé, Batram Suri, tried his luck with a 43rd minute free kick from a long way out. It went over the bar but, a minute later, the Solomons took the lead. Commins Menapi, with the ball at his feet outside the penalty box, beat Aussie defender Adrian Madaschi and fired a superb shot past Kalac.
Australia had one chance to equalise before half time. Brosque crossed for Vieri who was barely outside the six yard box but again, the striker couldn’t trouble Ray Jnr.
Needless to say, the stadium was buzzing at half time. Could the Solomons do it? (They certainly would if the Socceroos played as badly in the second half as they did in the first.)
Bizarrely, Aussie coach Frank Farina made three substitutions at half time. I doubt that it’s a good idea (what if you pick up an injury?) but it probably says something about how disappointed he was with Australia’s performance. Simon Colosimo, Ahmad Elrich and Mile Sterjovski came on; Brosque, Vieri and defender David Tarka came off. Vieri was ineffectual and Elrich has been more influential than Brosque throughout the week. I’m not sure what Tarka did wrong.
The Solomons, totally uninhibited in the first half, were now about to be put to the test as Australia showed real urgency in the first ten minutes after the break.
In the 49th minute, an Elrich cross/shot was tipped over the bar by Ray Jnr. From the resulting corner, Madaschi headed over the bar.
Australia equalised in the 51st minute. After some fine work on the edge of the penalty box by John Aloisi, Tim Cahill scored his 6th goal of the week. A minute later, Sterjovski nearly put Australia in front but his shot was just over the bar.
In the 53rd minute, Brett Emerton did give the Aussies the lead. His shot from 6 yards hit the inside of the goalpost and then rebounded off the back of Ray Jnr into the net. Finally, it looked as if the New Zealanders could breathe easily.
Australia’s charge continued in the 55th minute as, from close range, Adrian Madaschi headed an Elrich cross over.
But a minute later, with the Solomons on the ropes, a bad tackle on Henry Fa’arodo earned Aussie defender Patrick Kisnorbo a second yellow card and a send off. The Socceroos would have to play the rest of the match with 10 men. Still, they had the next chance as Sterjovski headed another Elrich cross wide.
In the 70th minute, mistakes by the Solomons’ defence saw Cahill through for a one-on-one with Ray Jnr but the ‘keeper saved well.
The Solomons first real chance of the second half came in the 72nd minute as Commins Menapi found some space down the left but he shot from a tight angle when he really should have crossed. Then at the other end, Elrich crossed again but Sterjovski couldn’t make enough connection with the ball. Despite being a man down, Australia seemed to have the game under control.
But the Solomons were about to spring back to life. Fa’arodo shot over the bar from a free kick in the 75th minute and, a minute later, Batram Suri played Menapi in and the Solomons’ striker scored his second with a fine low shot past Kalac. 2-2!
Now what? Would Australia regain the attacking venom it had in the earlier part of the second half? No. Despite just needing a draw, the Solomons continued to push forward.
A great ball by Alick Maemae in the 77th minute gave Batram Suri a chance from a difficult angle but his shot just ran across the face of the goal.
Not lacking in confidence, the islanders continued to try to win the game. In the 85th minute and with the tension building, Menapi, looking for a third, had a shot blocked after a cross by substitute Stanley Waita. Then Suri played a wonderful one-two with Menapi and forced a great save from Kalac.
In the 87th minute, Australia made its final push. Madaschi rose to a Brett Emerton corner but his header went straight to Ray Jnr.
The next gasp was not caused by something that happened on the field of play – it was because the fourth official (Vanuatu’s Harry Attison) held up a board showing that only one extra minute would be played! Meanwhile, the Solomons had won another free kick but Suri’s shot went straight to Kalac. Australia then tried to launch one final attack but it was too late; the Solomons had made history.
“Bart”, the Solomon Islands’ radio commentator, was again sitting next to me in the media box and it was great to be one of the first people to congratulate him. Soon he was joined by coach Alan Gillett. An Englishman, Gillett has coached all over the world – Malawi, Japan, England of course – and I immediately asked him if he’d ever experienced anything more exciting in football. Ecstatic, he replied, “No. Absolutely not.”
At the media conference, Socceroos’ coach Frank Farina said that his players “didn’t have the right attitude in the first half”. They were “definitely trying … but possibly their minds slipped”. I pointed out that playing in Honiara (the Socceroos) would be a completely different experience (compared to New Zealand). Farina agreed, “It will be intimidating … we won’t get that in Auckland.”
Alan Gillett’s conference, unsurprisingly, went on for quite some time. He said that the Solomons’ players are “as good as any he’s taken – and they’re amateurs”. His future is uncertain because he’s now out of contract with the Solomons (they probably want to keep him but money might be a problem) and he “would be very sad if his connection with the Solomons ended”.
Gillett is very impressive. He’s very honest and doesn’t pretend to know everything or have all the answers. He said that if he had his way “all islands (Pacific island nations) would be getting help with equipment, finance, touring, etc.” And he thinks the Australians will love it when they have to play in the Solomon Islands as “the atmosphere is superb and the people are good”. I might have to investigate the cost of getting there!
Needless to say, the New Zealanders are probably shattered. Before the Solomons-Australia game, they temporarily went into second place with an efficient 2-0 win over Fiji.
The depleted Fijians tried hard but never really looked like causing an upset.
The All Whites (in red and blue again) were into their stride early. A 6th minute header by Ryan Nelsen from a Raffaele De Gregorio free kick was caught on the line by Fiji ‘keeper Simione Tamanisau.
In the 8th minute, defender Che Bunce gave New Zealand an early lead when he headed another De Gregorio free kick truly. Any nerves the Kiwis might have had now settled.
Duncan Oughton had a shot blocked in the 16th minute after a free kick was rolled to him and, two minutes later, a centre from Brent Fisher created a great opening for De Gregorio but the striker’s shot was tame and wide. He had another shot blocked in the 22nd minute after some good work by Vaughan Coveny.
New Zealand continued to control the match and in the 30th minute, full back Tony Lochhead shot from distance with Tamanisau off his line but the Fiji defence was able to head the ball away.
Kiwi midfielder Aaran Lines, not as dominant as he had been against Tahiti, found himself one-on-one with Tamanisau in the 32nd minute but a poor touch allowed Fiji’s custodian to beat him to the ball. Two minutes later, Lines crossed for Vicelich but again Tamanisau saved.
In the 36th minute, Coveny played Fisher in but the midfielder shot wide. The Kiwis really should have killed the match off by now.
Fiji had a bright finish in the first half. Full back Pene Erenio had an ambitious shot in the 40th minute and, just before the half time whistle, a lay off from Taniela Waqa was blazed high and wide by Esala Masi.
New Zealand picked up again in the second half. Before it was a minute old, De Gregorio had headed an early chance over the bar. In the 55th minute, Fiji had its best chance when Waqa tried to chip Kiwi goalkeeper Mark Paston but Duncan Oughton headed safely away.
A minute later, Vaughan Coveny scored New Zealand’s second after a fine cross from Brent Fisher found him unmarked.
From there, the match started to fizzle. The Fijians had a very good spell of possession but they were blunt up forward and could not create chances.
Vaughan Coveny continued his form with a 76th minute shot which forced a save and, in the 86th minute, another Coveny effort was deflected wide. A few minutes earlier, Fisher had also shot wide and the final score was: Fiji 0 New Zealand 2.
Fiji coach Tony Buesnel is disappointed in the fact that his team isn’t the number one island country and he suggested that Fiji might have been ahead of the Solomons if a penalty had been awarded to Veresa Toma (when the Fiji-Solomons score was 1-1) two days earlier. I’d say the Solomon Islands performance against Australia confirms who the top dog among the South Pacific islands really is.
Mick Waitt, the New Zealand coach, has been extremely pleasant and cooperative with the media – despite his team’s difficulties. After the Fiji match, he was confident that Australia would do the job against the Solomon Islands and that, consequently, the All Whites would avoid an early elimination. I didn’t see him after the Solomons-Australia match but he has refused to make excuses all week and I doubt he’ll start doing so now. The poor bloke will probably be fired tomorrow.
The day’s first match was between Tahiti and Vanuatu. Neither team had any chance of progressing to the next stage but, amazingly, Tahiti, the week’s weak link, won 2-1. In their first four matches here, the Tahitians couldn’t even score!
They deserved their win. Vanuatu was poor but with barely 13 fit men, coach Carlos Buzzeti has been forced to put injured players on the field at times. Still, this can be a strange game. Consider the following: in the space of less than a week, Vanuatu defeated New Zealand; the Kiwis then came out and blasted 10 goals past Tahiti; and now Tahiti come out and beat Vanuatu. Plus, Vanuatu has finished bottom of the group with just 3 points – from the win over New Zealand!
Tahiti dominated most of the match and had the first chance in the 10th minute with an Axel Temataua shot from a free kick. In the 16th minute, Temataua got in behind the defence and crossed but after some nervy moments, the ball was cleared. A minute later a free kick from Felix Tagawa forced a fine save from Vanuatu ‘keeper Charly Kalsanei (deputising for David Chilia who broke his arm after his heroics against the Socceroos).
Tahiti’s best player throughout the week has probably been attacking left back Vincent Simon (though he did unfortunately score an own goal against Australia). In the 19th minute, Simon centred after some good work down the left but striker Gabriel Wajoka shot wide. A minute later, midfielder Billy Mataitai had another shot but it was well out.
The French Polynesians continued to attack. In the 22nd minute, a free kick from Farahia Teuira was headed narrowly wide by Temataua.
But completely against the run of play, Vanuatu took the lead in the 24th minute with virtually the first attack at the other end of the ground. A lovely through ball by Etienne Mermer was accepted by Richard Iwai and he shot past Fiji ‘keeper Daniel Tapeta. Well, it’s been that sort of week for Tahiti!
Undaunted, Tahiti tried to equalise immediately as Tagawa beat the defence and forced a save from Kalsanei.
In the 28th minute, a Wajoka shot from a Simon centre was deflected for a corner. Another shot by Temataua was then blocked by impressive Vanuatu defender Lexa Bule Bibi.
Vanuatu’s Lorry Thompsen, who sports a Baggio-like ponytail, shot for Vanuatu in the 31st minute but he was off balance and missed.
In the 37th minute, Mataitai had a great chance to equalise for Tahiti but hit straight to the ‘keeper. It seemed there was a curse on the team when it went forward. Wajoka had a shot saved a minute later.
In the 40th minute (at last!) Tahiti scored. Simon centred from the left after another good run and Temataua made no mistake. The Tahitians had played (wait for it) exactly 400 minutes in Adelaide before finally getting a goal.
Vanuatu tried to immediately retake the lead but, after some good build up play, right back Manley Junior Tabe’s shot was blocked. Just before half time, some great work by Pita David Maki (no doubt relieved that he wasn’t goalkeeping as he briefly did against Australia!) created another chance for Lorry Thompsen but, from a position where he really should have scored, his effort sailed over the bar.
Tahiti had the first chance of the second half when, in the 47th minute, Larry Marmouyet forced a nice save out of Charly Kalsanei. However, in the 55th minute, Tahiti suffered a massive blow when captain Samuel Garcia was dismissed after receiving a second yellow card.
The Tahitians still managed to push on and, in the 58th minute, Vanuatu ‘keeper Kalsanei tackled Mataitai just outside the box and Teuira hit the resulting free kick just wide.
Now play swung Vanuatu’s way and in the 63rd minute, Etienne Mermer, from a wide position, shot straight at Daniel Tapeta. Three minutes later, Thompsen slipped a ball through for Richard Iwai who missed narrowly. Then in the 70th minute, Jean Maleb, who had just come on as a substitute, had a shot well saved.
In the 72nd minute, Temataua had another shot for Tahiti and, two minutes later, Mermer forced two good saves out of Tapeta at the other end.
The effects of the long week were starting to show on both teams as the pace of the match really began to drop off. But 10-man Tahiti found a second wind in the last 10 minutes.
In the 80th minute, Temataua had another shot blocked after a free kick was rolled to him and, shortly after that, Wajoka shot well over the bar.
Marmouyet had a free header from a corner in the 88th minute but it was wide and the Tahiti midfielder missed again a minute later. With the last chance of the match, Gabriel Wajoka scored a deserved winner for Tahiti after a long run and a one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
Speaking through an interpreter after the match, Tahiti coach Gerard Kautai talked about how his players were not professionals and how he had eight players missing because they couldn’t leave their work. Included in that group are some of Tahiti’s best like Naea Bennett and Teva Zaveroni. He said that his objectives were first to qualify for Stage 2 and then to try and finish 3rd in Adelaide but it was difficult with so many players missing.
Kautai is also clearly unhappy with the schedule of matches (perhaps Oceania’s soccer politicians need to consult with their coaches a little more).
So an amazing series ends with a genuine World Cup upset: New Zealand out of the next phase of Oceania qualifiers; Solomon Islands in. I look forward to wrapping up this amazing week over the next few days. Stay tuned!
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