Tonga go down 2-1 as the Cooks top qualifier
By ILIESA TORA
NUKU’ALOFA-September 2: 9pm (Nuku’alofa Times/OFC): The Tonga senior men’s national soccer team exited the race for top spot in the Oceania Football Confederation World Cup qualifying event earlier today with another disappointing performance at Veitongo.
Losing 2-1 to American Samoa shut the team’s hopes of advancing in the event, having lost to the impressive Cook Islanders by 3-0 at the same venue – the Tonga Football grounds – on Monday.
With no win from two matches, the national side will now have to wait for another four years before they get another crack at qualifying from the preliminary event.
It was disappointing for fans who turned up to cheer the side on, in the hope that they would be able to win against the American Samoans.
Sione Uhatahi, who easily was the Tongan Player of the Tournament after the two matches, scored in the 46th minute – a minute into the second spell – after he chased a ball inside the box and dived past Samoan goalkeeper Pita Falevau to score the opening goal of the clash.
But Justin Mana’o cancelled Tonga’s lead when he pulled one back for the visitors and leveled terms a minute after Tonga’s goal.
Then when the Tongans were still trying to re-organise, the visitors struck again, this time through Ramin Ott.
Tonga had a lot of chances to score in the first spell.
Sione worked well with brother and captain Mark Uhatahi upfront, linking with Lafaele Moala.
Midfielders Fineasi Palei and youngsters Hemaloto Polovili with Soakai Vea held the midfield battles well but disappointingly for fans the team did not stick with basics when it mattered most.
American Samoa showed good teamwork in the second spell and scored the goals that mattered in the process.
The win gives them a chance at topping the event but they will have to have all guns firing when they meet Cook Islands on Friday.
The teams shaped up for the second match with both needing all three points to stay alive.
“It was a well-earned and hard-fought victory,” American Samoa coach Larry Mana’o told the OFC Media.
“We knew that teams can be susceptible after a goal and we have worked on that. We have been behind in both games and we have shown real character to push through and find a result in this game.”
Tonga had a chance to draw level but Sione Uhatahi side-footed wide, and Samisoni Maasi narrowly failed to make connection at the far post as he slid in.
Brother Mark Uhatahi then saw his shot blocked by the keeper, and it was a similar scenario at the other end as Saafi remained strong to halt Aloali’i Mitchell’s effort.
Beauchamp lofted a shot onto the crossbar with ten to go as American Samoa narrowly fell shy of securing the match-sealer.
The contest concluded in end-to-end fashion amid a tense and desperate atmosphere as both sides battled for their FIFA World Cup futures, with American Samoa ultimately edging all three points.
“Unfortunately we didn’t win today but the boys did their best, and I hope that we will win the last one for the crowd,” Tonga coach Timote Polovili said.
Meanwhile, Cook Islands are in touching distance of passage to Stage 2 of OFC’s 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualifying competition.
The Cooks beat Samoa 1-0 in the first game today.
“It was really tough, and Samoa took the game to us,” Cook Islands coach Drew Sherman told OFC Media.
“We had a game-plan to ultimately stop them and try and nick a goal. They are favourites based on history. We kept our shape and limited them to shots from long distance and set-pieces.
“We now have it in our hands to finish the job.”
The opening match was always going to be crucial to the eventual outcome of the tournament with both Cook Islands and Samoa having secured wins on the opening day.
It was little surprise that both sides opened with good intensity, each enjoying promising moments in attack. The best early chance saw Cook Islands denied only a goal line clearance.
Paavo Mustonen’s dangerous free-kick from distance was pawed away by goalkeeper Masi Toetu, and it required a desperate last-gasp clearance from Andrew Setefano to deny a follow-up effort from Legend Pareta.
Cook Islands always looked likely from set-pieces, but it was a Samoa free-kick on the half-hour that narrowly failed to find the mark for the men in blue as a Faitalia Hamilton-Pama’s back-post header bounced just wide.
Samoa may have started the match as favourites in the eyes of many, but it was Cook Islands who shaded the opening period, and they were duly rewarded just before the break in spectacular fashion.
Taylor Saghabi, scorer of a hat-trick on the opening day, fired in a free-kick from wide on the right which dipped over the despairing hands of Toetu off the underside of the bar and over the line.
The second period continued in a similar vein to the first with two well-matched teams pushing forward at every opportunity, and there were no shortage of full-blooded challenges to go with it.
Cook Islands could have taken the match by the scruff of the neck on the hour mark via a well-worked three-man counter-attack, but Pareta saw his one-on-one effort well blocked by keeper Toetu who timed it perfectly.
At the other end, Cook Islands could have conceded in the most bizarre fashion imaginable, as Mustonen’s attempt to block a shot from the edge of the penalty area looped onto his own crossbar with the goalkeeper stranded.
Cook Islands always looked a chance to grab an all-important second, notably Gichin Fihinui let fly with a sweet long-range effort that momentarily seemed set to dip under the crossbar.
The match lost a little of its momentum in the dying stages which suited Cook Islands who continued to restrict Samoa to half-openings.
There was a final headed chance for Samoa to draw level but Hamilton-Pama failed to make clean contact with his head, leaving Cook Islands celebrating successive wins for the first time and, more importantly, sitting in top position.
“We were looking forward to this game and were prepared for it, but unfortunately we didn’t get the bounce of the ball,” Samoa coach Phineas Young.
“The boys are a bit upset. We came here as underdogs but wanted to win this tournament for our federation and people of Samoa. The tournament is not over yet, and we still have a chance.”
Cook Islands now head into the final match day needing just a point from their encounter against American Samoa to secure qualification into Stage 2, but the possibility of three teams finishing on six points remains strong.
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