New Zealand will continue their 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ Qualifier journey after coming up trumps in the home-and-away OFC Stage 3 Final, despite being held to a 2-2 draw by Solomon Islands on Tuesday’s second leg at Lawson Tama Stadium in Honiara.
New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson expected a tough encounter on the return and was very pleased his side held of a determined Solomon Islands to make it through Stage 3 unbeaten.
“It was a difficult day today. We knew that making a lot of changes and I think we had five changes in there in what was already a very light squad,” Hudson said.
“Overall I’m proud of the team.”
With a changed side including some players trying out different roles, New Zealand pushed from the outset but the majority of their chances were held off by the Solomon Islands back-line.
However it took the All Whites just 14 minutes to break the defence down. An opening shot came ricocheting off the upright, the follow-up was pushed away by Solomon Islands goalkeeper Philip Mango but a persistent Myer Bevan made sure to nail his chance putting away his first goal as an All White.
The Bonitos hit back quickly with Benjamin Totori smashing a shot on target but Stefan Marinovic was in-form as he tipped the ball over the cross-bar at full stretch.
The bad luck the Solomon Islands picked up in Auckland seemed to follow them to Honiara when a ball from Kosta Barabarouses out wide was headed into the Solomon Islands net by defender Haddis Aengari.
An unrelenting Solomon Islands side kept the pressure on their opponents and it paid off when a threatening advance on goal saw Micah Lea’alafa brought down in the penalty area.
The dual-international fired past Marinovic to put his side on the board and back in the game.
A shot in the 35th minute came ricocheting off the post to a waiting Storm Roux who looked to finish but the flag was up in what was an otherwise close call for the Solomon Islanders.
At the other end of the field the age-less Henry Fa’arodo aimed at the top corner forcing an impressive save from Marinovic who just managed to tip the powerful effort over the cross bar.
Going into the second half the Solomon Islands continued to apply pressure and although their opponents made some decent runs forward it was the Bonitos who looked like the more dangerous side.
Substitute James Naka was impressive from the moment he stepped on the park and that showed when he was taken down in the penalty area as he raced at goal, leading the referee to point to the penalty spot for the second time in the match.
Captain Henry Fa’arodo sent the keeper the wrong way as he smashed the ball in for his second goal across the two legs.
Despite some creative attacks from the Solomon Islands as they pushed hard for a winner, they were unable to get past the hardworking New Zealand backline to see the match end with a hard-earned 2-2 draw.
Solomon Islands coach Felipe Vega-Arango Alonso had hoped for a home soil win but said his side showed their best out on the field today.
“Firstly I want to congratulate New Zealand for progressing and I hope they can get a spot in the World Cup and represent Oceania,” Vega-Arango Alonso said.
“For us, it was a good score because although we wanted to win when you’re two down against a professional side; 2-2 is like a win.
“I think we had a very good game, I think it would have been really unfair if we lose the game. But the tie is good for the boys, good for the federation and good for the country.”
Although the home side were impressive in front of home fans, Vega-Arango Alonso said it was more about proving to themselves that they were worthy.
“I think they did it for themselves. To prove to themselves that they can complete. And today they competed, and really well.
“When you’re 2-0 down in the first 20 minutes of the first half most teams go down and just give up. They never gave up, they kept fighting and had a lot of chances.”
With the Intercontinental Play-Off against the fifth-placed COMNEBOL side now looming in November, the work continues for Hudson and his team.
“What’s next is we have to make sure we prepare well in October,” he said.
“And we get all our best players back and we’re ready for November. Hopefully we can announce something soon.
“We’ve been following the COMNEBOL teams and this window is crucial because there’s three or four teams hovering around so we’re following the teams and we’re looking forward to it.”