New Zealand’s bid to qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup is very much on track after Danny Hay’s side secured a tense 2-1 win over Solomon Islands in their second match of Oceania qualifying this afternoon at Stade Pater in Papeete, Tahiti.
After beginning their campaign in ideal fashion with an outstanding display of clinical finishing in the 11-0 win over Samoa, Hay knew his side would be in for a far sterner examination of their abilities against the skilful Solomon Islanders. Showing faith in the depth of talent at his disposal, the former All White – who is joined on the coaching staff by fellow ex-international skippers Chris Zorocich and Jason Batty – made several changes to the starting line-up as goalkeeper Zac Jones, Leon van den Hoven, Matthew Conroy and Oliver Whyte were all brought in.
Hay’s expectations of a tough match eventually came to fruition but not before New Zealand had begun just as they had left off against Samoa with an early goal. Six different scorers had found the net on Monday – including a pair of hat-tricks to Charles Spragg and Matthew Palmer – and there was another name on the scoresheet today as an unmarked Jake Williams met a long throw at the back post to fire home in just the third minute.
Any hopes the Kiwis had of a comfortable afternoon were soon dispelled though as the Solomon Islands – who were seeking their first victory of the competition after being held 1-1 by Fiji in their opening match – proved a tough nut to crack for the remainder of the half.
And when another goal did arrive just after the break, it went the way of the Melanesians, Junior Kaoni following up on a miscued clearance from the New Zealand defence to fire past goalkeeper Zac Jones.
With the result now hanging on a knife edge, the intensity of proceedings lifted and New Zealand nearly took the lead again when Liberato Cacace burst down the line and swung in a perfect ball to captain Max Mata, who hit it first time and drew a full-stretch save from the foot of Solomon goalkeeper Joel Nanago.
As New Zealand continued to search for the winner, previous hat-trick hero Spragg came on for Conroy and it proved to be an inspired substitution as the striker was able to find that all-important goal with just six minutes remaining.
Again it was the boot of Mata that proved threatening, the skipper leading by example to crash an effort against the cross bar before Spragg followed up to tuck in New Zealand’s second and secure successive Group B wins for the tournament’s defending champions.
“It was really difficult and I thought the Solomon Islands were outstanding,” a relieved Hay admitted.
“Potentially, us scoring as early as we did was the worst thing that could have happened to us – it was almost like our boys thought it was going to be a repeat of Samoa. So that’s a big wake-up call for us as to the quality of opposition teams and individual players that we’re going to play against. Hopefully, they’ll learn from that and I’ve got no doubts that they will.”
Hay had plenty of admiration for a Solomon Islands outfit whose quality was clearly a step up from that encountered in the huge Samoa victory.
“I’ve played against Solomon Islands sides a lot and have been trying to tell the players how technically gifted they are and how you can’t dive in around the box. I think we dodged a bullet really because they showed a lot of skill and composure on the ball,” he said.
“But you’ve got to say our boys showed a huge amount of character to dig in there and win the game. Everyone in the camp is now going to have to take a good, long look and see how we can try to make sure the performance is better leading into that next match.”
New Zealand will play their third and final Group B match of the OFC U-17 Championship on Sunday 19 February at 6pm (NZT).
New Zealand 2 (Jake Williams 3’, Charles Spragg 84’)
Solomon Islands 1 (Junior Kaoni 47’)
New Zealand: 12. Zac Jones (GK), 2. Jordan Spain, 3. Josh Rogerson, 4. Liberato Cacace, 5. Jake Williams, 6. Leon van den Hoven (8. Oliver Duncan 33’), 9. Max Mata (c), 11. Matthew Conroy (yellow card 66’) (Charles Spragg 68’), 14. Kingsley Sinclair, 16. Oliver Whyte (7. Elijah Just 46’), 17. Matthew Palmer
Substitutes not used: 1. Dylan Bennett (GK), 10. Willem Ebbinge, 13. Matthew Jones, 15. Ben Deeley
Coach: Danny Hay