New Zealand guaranteed their position at the top of the group for 2014 World Cup qualification, and in doing so booked their place for a play-off against the fourth-placed team from the CONCACAF region. Their opponents, New Caledonia, were subsequently eliminated from the qualification process, as were group stage strugglers Tahiti and the Solomon Islands, who also faced off in the group stage’s penultimate round of fixtures this weekend.
New Zealand 2 (Killen 10, Smith 90+4)
New Caledonia 1 (Lolohea 56)
Regional heavyweights New Zealand ended plucky New Caledonia’s challenge for the group stage title with a dramatic 2-1 win in Dunedin. Second-placed New Caledonia needed a win to keep their chances of reaching Brazil alive, and battled admirably being cruelly denied an admirable draw when Tommy Smith headed the hosts into an inter-continental play-off in the fourth minute of injury time.
Both sides had chances in the opening stages of the game, but it was New Zealand who struck first when ex-Celtic striker Chris Killen converted Leo Bertos’ 10th-minute corner. The early goal changed the dynamic of the game, with New Caledonia now forced to come out of their shell in order to stand any chance of grabbing the three points they needed.
Sure enough, Les Cagous upped the tempo, with attackers Georges Gope-Fenepej (the tournament’s top scorer), Cesar Lolohea and Bertrand Kai all looking dangerous, but on 26 minutes it was New Zealand who almost grabbed a second goal. Once more, a set-piece proved New Caledonia’s undoing, as Marco Rojas’ free-kick was met by a thundering Tommy Smith header, but the Ipswich defender’s effort bounced back off the crossbar.
The remainder of the first half progressed in end-to-end fashion; few clear chances were created, but, as half-time loomed on the horizon, Smith hit the bar for the second time in 20 minutes. A frantic goalmouth scramble in the visitors’ box ended with the centre-back toeing the ball onto the bar from close range, and New Caledonia survived until half-time with just the one goal conceded.
Les Cagous duly regrouped during the interval, and coach Alain Moizan’s team-talk had an almost immediate effect: just ten minutes of the second half had elapsed when Lolohea expertly controlled a Bertrand Kai cross on his chest before firing beyond Mark Paston, silencing the watching Kiwis in the stands.
Further goals proved elusive for both sides, and New Caledonia survived a scare in the last minute of normal time when Shane Smeltz’s penalty appeals were waved away by Australian referee Strebre Delovski, but the All Blacks were not to be denied. Just seconds remained when Smith made it third time lucky by reacting quickest to a loose ball and looping a header over visiting keeper Rocky Nyikeine.
New Zealand will be relieved to have avoided needing a result in the final game to confirm their group-stage win, but New Caledonia pushed them all the way and that is encouraging for the future of Oceanic football.
Tahiti 2 (Bourebare 28, Vallar 82)
Solomon Islands 0
Tahiti finally claimed their first group-stage victory at the fifth attempt, with a 2-0 win over fellow strugglers Solomon Islands. They were helped by Solomons player-coach Henry Fa’arodo naming a much-changed starting line-up – just Fa’arodo (obviously!) and Benjamin Totori survived from their last game, a 5-0 loss to New Caledonia.
The hosts began the game strongly, and it was little surprise when they opened the scoring midway through the first half when Donovan Bourebare crashed home a free-kick. Totori came closest to restoring parity for the Solomons, but Tahiti ensured their lead lasted until half-time.
The second half was disrupted by a string of yellow cards and substitutions for both teams, but it was Tahiti who came closer to scoring again. Steevy Chong Hue’s center was met by Yannick Vero, but the forward was brilliantly denied by Solomons custodian Sammy Osso. However, Tahiti sealed a deserved win eight minutes from time as skipper Nicolas Vallar beat Osso from range.
The two sides are now tied on three points with one match remaining, cast well adrift of New Caledonia and champions New Zealand. Tahiti will be reassured by a return to winning ways after their four-match losing streak, especially with the Confederations Cup in Brazil looming later this year. Solomons’ player-coach Totori has a lot of work to do on this showing if he is to turn his nation into genuine regional contenders, and his radical team selection may require several more matches to gel.