New Zealand have sealed their seventh straight OFC U-16 Championship title after beating Solomon Islands in a penalty shootout following a thrilling 0-0 draw at Lawson Tama Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
It was an exceptional final with everything the thousands of fans who packed themselves into Lawson Tama could have asked for.
New Zealand attempted to make an early mark on the match with a neat Henry Hamilton chip for Sean Bright in the first minute signalling their intentions.
It was almost all New Zealand for the first five minutes really before Solomon Islands started to come into their own by starting to contest the control Marko Stamenic and Matt Garbett had in the midfield.
A couple of early cautions for both sides quickly put paid to any ideas the sides had of using their physical presence to dominate in challenges and helped the players calm down a little and focus on good football.
Alex Paulsen, who got the nod for this match over teammate Luca Taylor, played his performance of the tournament. The young gloveman commanded his penalty area and was able to halt some powerful efforts from the Solomon Islands’ leading goal scorer Raphael Le’ai.
Also playing out of his skin was New Zealand captain Campbell Strong who managed the backline with finesse and made a couple of incredibly crucial tackles to halt Le’ai, which New Zealand really needed him to make.
The second half was just as close as the first had been although the entrance of Oskar Van Hattum around the hour mark brought an injection of speed into the front line that had the tiring Solomon Islands backline having to dig deep.
It seemed like the match was heading for a penalty shootout as it remained scoreless heading into the four minutes of added time, until Le’ai was brought down in the box and referee Norbert Hauata had no choice but to point to the spot.
Le’ai, who had eight goals so far in the competition, stepped up but Paulsen continued his impressive final form by getting his hand to save the shot and deny the winner.
At full-time with the teams deadlocked the match headed to directly to a penalty shootout.
Solomon Islands was first up and both teams nailed their first two kicks. However Paulsen continued his heroics by halting the third kick from defender Derick Taebo, and with New Zealand slotting their remaining kicks, they were crowned winners of their seventh straight OFC U-16 Championship title.
New Zealand coach Jose Figueira could not have been a happier man at the final whistle as a tournament that took him on a rollercoaster ride finally came to a happy conclusion.
“There is plenty to say about the match and I probably can’t find the words right now,” the elated Englishman said.
“I said to the guys on the side before that final penalty, we’ve probably experienced everything there is to experience in what is an absolutely incredible place for football in this region.
“It was important to get the win and I think we have got to thank our goalkeeper right at the end there for coming up big.”
For Stanley Waita it wasn’t the result he wanted, but he could do nothing but congratulate his charges for giving the game, and the tournament, their all.
“I’m very proud of my boys, they did well. They were a bit sleepy in the first half and the second half we came up strong and should have finished it in the 91st minute, but unfortunately we didn’t take our chance.
“This young side, they have a bright future and we expect a lot from them, they’ll keep improving.”
Tahiti secured third place after holding off a late surge from Fiji to secure a 2-1 victory at Lawson Tama Stadium this morning.
Having already gained the winning advantage over their opponents during the Group Stage, Tahiti went into the match as favourites.
But having performed outstandingly well against Solomon Islands in the semi-final, Fiji couldn’t be underestimated and they showed that with another strong performance in this play-off.
In fact, both sides lifted their game once more as they were determined not to leave Honiara empty handed.
But as the match commenced the Tahitians slowly imposed their style on the match, slowing it in the midfield and then attacking into the final third at pace.
Tahiti kept the pressure on their opponents and were eventually rewarded with the lead in the 28th minute courtesy of the powerful Tehotu Gitton.
With a goal in hand going into the second half Tahiti continued pressing high on Fiji, and although there were some decent runs from the Fijians, with Nikhi Pillay and Josaia Sela in particular threatening Terainui Tetuanui in goal, Tahiti managed to hold them off.
The French Polynesians found that second goal they’d been searching for in the 78th minute with a well-worked team effort up the left which came in to captain Tehauarii Holozet who smashed it into the roof of the net.
Fiji got a second wind around the 85th minute, heaping pressure on their opponents and eventually managing to break them down with one minute remaining of regulation time as Rahul Naresh pushed up and fired past Tetuanui.
It took everything Tahiti had left in their tank to deny the onslaught from Fiji as the six minutes of additional time counted down and they could let out a sigh of relief at the final whistle.
Tahiti coach Hermann Aurentz was pleased the side’s efforts were rewarded with the bronze medals.
“I’m very happy to have this third place finish to reward our players for all the hard work they’ve put in over the past four to five months.
“Also rewarding the parents back home in Tahiti for their support.
“Mauruuru to everyone who has been supporting us – the staff, the president of the federation.
“It’s been a tournament rich with emotions and we learned a lot, even the players, in terms of what is required to go a bit further next time.
“But we secured third place, congratulations to the boys, congratulations to Fiji.”
Fiji coach Yogendra Dutt was disappointed once more to come so close but still miss out on the prize they desired.
“It was a tough match,” he said.
“They played to the best of their ability and we can’t do much about it. We tried to press Tahiti in the second half but then we made a mistake and they scored again. But we did score one goal.”
Solomon Islands didn’t go home empty handed with the side doing well in the individual awards, as well as picking up the team award for Fairplay.
Raphael Le’ai’s eight goals earned him the Golden Boot, while he also went home with the Golden Ball for the most outstanding player of the tournament.
New Zealand goalkeeper Alex Paulsen collected the Golden Gloves award, largely based on his impressive performance in the final.