New Caledonia topped the pool by defeating Papua New Guinea 4-1, while Vanuatu edged defending champions Fiji 1-0 in the other match on Saturday and should they both win again against Fiji and Papua New Guinea respectively they would wrap up the top two places with a game to spare.
Confirming a place in the final four of the eight nation is a step closer to qualifying for next year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup, which for the first time welcomes two teams from the OFC qualifying tournament, specifically the winners of each semi-final.
New Caledonia were down a goal at halftime in their opener and so coach Kemali Fitealeata has been focussing on replicating their second half performance from the first whistle against Fiji.
“The first game I thought the players were stressed and were feeling the pressure. For some players it was their first international game. But now we are ready to play like we did in the second half throughout the rest of the tournament,” said Fitealeata.
“We were very happy to win our first match and we have to win the second game and qualify for the semi-finals.”
Meanwhile, the Vanuatu camp are not entertaining thoughts of qualification for the semi-finals, let alone greater targets, ahead of their clash against Papua New Guinea.
Coach Ettienne Mermer prefers to keep his players focussed on the individual tasks at hand as they prepare for Papua New Guinea.
“As coaches we try to make players just focus on day by day. We don’t want to focus on the aim to qualify for Korea because it’s too far. We just want them to think about each day and exactly what they have to do on that day to prepare. A step-by-step approach is best for us.
They take on a Fiji side still determined to reach a second straight FIFA U-20 World Cup but facing an uphill battle needing at least a point against the leaders to keep those hopes alive.
“We have worked hard in training on what we lacked in last game,” said Fijian coach Yogendra Dutt.
“We will go out and do our best against New Caledonia. We know they are pool leaders and they won by a big margin but soccer is a game where anything can happen.”
The task is arguably even tougher for Papua New Guinea who have the host nation and a boisterous Port Vila crowd standing between them and the chance to get their campaign back on track.
Coach Peter Dabinyaba is taking confidence from their first half effort against New Caledonia and calling for greater concentration from his players to convert a winning position into three points if they get the opportunity.
“Perhaps in the first half the players were too confident and thought the game was won,” said Dabinyaba, “in the second half they were caught by surprise and when New Caledonia scored two they thought the game was over.
“But this is international football and we have to play for 90 minutes. If we score we have to maintain our intensity and keep the pressure on.”
New Caledonia’s match against Fiji kicks off at noon (local time) with Papua New Guinea facing the hosts in the 3pm kickoff.
Over on the island of Santo, Group B action sees Cook Islands face Solomon Islands while Tahiti meet group leaders New Zealand.