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Tense finale awaits amid tight competition

2016 proved to be a significant year for international football in Oceania, highlighted by the OFC Nations Cup and opening Round 3 action in 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying. The headline news was New Zealand winning the continental tournament in an event which doubled as Round 2 qualifying for Russia 2018. That result also allowed the All Whites to qualify for the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017.

But dig a little deeper and the main theme was the increased level of competition among Oceanian nations. Papua New Guinea pushed New Zealand to the very limit in the Nations Cup before falling on penalties, while New Caledonia were hugely unlucky to lose against the eventual champions in the semi-final.

Six nations remain in the hunt for a ticket to Russia 2018. Two groups of three will be completed over the coming year, before an Oceania final determines the identity of the side to compete in the intercontinental play-off against the fifth-best South American nation late in 2017. FIFA.com reviews the 2016 action, and looks ahead to what lies in store for the coming year.

Just for continental crown
Mid-year saw Papua New Guinea host the Nations Cup for the first time, a precursor to their successful staging of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in November/December. PNG not only reached the semi-final stage for the first time, but won through to the final to be in touching distance of a continental glory and an unlikely ticket to Russia 2017. But it was to be New Zealand, despite missing a handful of key players, who triumphed 4-2 on penalties after 120 scoreless minutes in the decider.

Of the eight competing nations only Samoa – who qualified from Round 1 ahead of American Samoa, Cook Islands and Tonga – failed to gain a win in PNG. The host nation topped Group A on goal difference ahead of both New Caledonia and Tahiti, though all three progressed to Round 3 World Cup qualifying, as Samoa missed out.

New Zealand won all three matches in the other group as Solomon Islands and Fiji kept alive their World Cup ambitions at the expense of an unlucky Vanuatu. The Solomons’ Nations Cup run ended in the semis as PNG collected a late 2-1 win. Losing finalists Papua New Guinea had some consolation with captain David Muta named the tournament’s best player, while Raymond Gunemba was the top-scorer with five goals,

New Zealand edge in front
Round 3 commenced in November with two matches in each group. New Zealand’s early advantage was established with a comfortable 2-0 win over New Caledonia in Auckland. However, the return fixture a few days later was an entirely different affair, though a scoreless draw leaves the All Whites well placed.

Fiji, currently searching for a new coach following the resignation of Frank Farina, will commence qualifiers in March. The Melanesians face the tough task of maintaining momentum after breakthrough qualification to both the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup and 2016 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament.

Three-way battle looms
The second group kicked-off with two extremely tight matches as Tahiti defeated Solomon Islands 1-0 at home, before the scoreline was reversed a few days later in Honiara with an injury-time winner from Emmanuel Poila. However, the Solomons were subsequently dealt a blow after fielding an ineligible player in their opening match, and a 3-0 scoreline was awarded in favour of Tahiti.

PNG will have a taste of the action against Tahiti in March, with the newly-invigorated Kapuls looking impressive under the guidance of Flemming Serritslev. PNG’s home and away matches against Tahiti could go a long way towards deciding the winner of the group.

Story courtesy of FIFA. For more on the world game visit www.fifa.com

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