Solomon Islands will be battling it in the final match against New Zealand at 2:45pm local time at the North Harbour Stadium today.
New Zealand put on an impressive showing to sweep aside Fiji 6-0 on Wednesday’s later game.
The earlier match was far more dramatic, the Solomon Islands needing a penalty shoot-out to finally get past Vanuatu after the scores were tied at 2-2 on the 90-minute mark and 3-3 following extra time.
Goalkeeper Silas Seda emerged as the hero for the Mamulas, as they are known in their football-mad nation, after pulling off two fine stops to deny Vanuatu penalty takers Willie Ola-Jimmy and Didier Kalip before Pascal Chabot scuffed his decisive penalty wide to give the Solomons a thrilling win.
Coach Noel Wagapu was delighted to see his side earn the chance to compete for a place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup but had plenty of sympathy for the beaten team.
“There was a lot of good football and it could have been anybody’s game,” he says. “Whenever teams go out that way, I can always empathise with them because it is very unlucky. But it is a lesson to us all that a team who prepares well should be able to win in the 90 minutes – if it goes to extra time or penalties it is a lot harder and becomes a lottery.”
Vanuatu coach Moise Poida was hit hard by the manner of the loss and feels his side have only themselves to blame for the defensive slip-ups that cost them the match.
“I felt we dominated the game and I think we are a stronger team than the Solomons,” he says. “We played well but missed a lot of opportunities and gave away three goals. We got punished by our own mistakes. I think we should have been in the final but we gifted that to the Solomon Islands.”
The outlook for Poida looked a lot brighter early on when he saw his side go in front through Kalip after only eight minutes. But the lead wasn’t to last long and, despite Dennis Ifunaoa spurning the chance to draw his side level from the penalty spot in the 22nd minute, the Mamulas turned things around quickly to lead 2-1 by the break.
A pair of strikes from Himson Teleda in the 24th and 42nd minutes, the latter of which was a wonderful solo effort, flipped the game on its head and the onus was now on Vanuatu to come good on their pre-game billing of favourites.
They did just that in the 78th minute when Jean Kaltak latched onto a cross from Kalip and beat Seda to send the game into extra-time.
Substitute Larry Sae put one Solomon foot in the final when he capitalised on a mix-up between Vanuatu goalkeeper Seloni Iaruel and defender Brian Kaltak just two minutes into the extra period and the Mamulas must have thought they had just about booked their spot as the clock ticked away.
But Kevin Shem had other ideas and, with just five minutes remaining, stepped up to curl a spectacular free kick home from fully 35 yards and leave the result up to the footballing gods in the lottery of the shoot-out.
New Zealand’s passage to the final was a lot more straightforward and the result was never really in question after a stunning long-range effort from Zane Sole and further goals to Ethan Galbraith and Dakota Lucas had them 3-0 up by the half-time whistle. A Cory Chettleburgh strike in the 61st minute and a pair of late goals to substitutes Andrew Bevin and Ryan Cain rounded off the scoring and completed a miserable day for Fiji coach Ravinesh Kumar.
“I feel upset because we lost by so many goals,” Kumar says. “But when you take a look at the New Zealand side, they have a lot of good players who have had exposure overseas to a high level of football. In comparison, our players are just playing locally in Fiji.”
New Zealand counterpart Chris Milicich was obviously far more upbeat.
“It was a good day at the office and a very different one to the other day against New Caledonia,” he says. “It was very physical and they came with a game plan to try and stop us from playing. But I felt that once we got that first goal they started to struggle a little bit. We slowly took more control of the game without ever really taking full control.”
New Zealand and the Solomon Islands will now face off for the right to represent Oceania at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Friday’s final, which will take place on the main pitch at North Harbour Stadium from 2.45pm. That winner-takes-all clash will be preceded by the 3rd/4th play-off between Vanuatu and Fiji at noon.