For the first time in 43 years Papua New Guinea will appear in the OFC Nations Cup final after downing Solomon Islands 2-1 in a thrilling semi-final encounter at Sir John Guise Stadium in Port Moresby.
The competition hosts will take on four-time regional champions New Zealand in the final after the Kiwis squeezed past New Caledonia 1-0 in the first semi-final of the day.
Papua New Guinea coach Flemming Serritslev was deservedly elated at his side’s performance.
“It’s a fantastic day for PNG football and for the country. I’m so proud of those boys for how hard they’ve worked since the beginning of April,” Serritslev says.
“Now they actually get their reward and they really deserve it.”
It was a thrilling 90 minutes for the home side in front of one of the largest crowds for the tournament to date, with fans not deterred by the political events which had taken place earlier in the day.
In their group matches Papua New Guinea took the lead twice but allowed their opponents to pull back in line and tonight seemed like that could be the case once again.
A 38th minute strike from Michael Foster, who received a well-timed pass from Raymond Gunemba before rounding keeper Phillip Mango, gave the Kapuls the lead they were after.
However they soon allowed the Solomon Islands to pull themselves back into finals contention when Judd Molea put the ball past Ronald Warisan directly from the corner.
The tension increased after the break as both sides continued to search for a winner, with quick counter attacks taking play from end-to-end.
Solomon Islands goalkeeper Phillip Mango had a blinder denying the impressive and relentless strike force of Gunemba, Foster, Nigel Dabingyaba and Tommy Semmy time and again.
However despite Mango’s being in-form as ever, he couldn’t hold Papua New Guinea off forever and as the clock headed into the final ten minutes of the match Dabingyaba pounced on a loose ball to give his side the lead for a second time.
This time the home side held tight to that one-goal advantage to see themselves through to a final against New Zealand on Saturday.
The win was a dream come true for Papua New Guinea captain David Muta.
“I’m so excited. It was my first time leading the boys from PNG in a semi-final and I’m just so happy and so pleased with how well they all performed,” Muta says.
“A big thanks to all our supporters who have been behind us since day one.
“Now I’m going to be captaining the side in the final and that means a lot. I think it’s going to be a really big challenge against New Zealand, but we have to stand strong and walk together as a team for the next game.”
Having been in a similar position four years ago Henry Fa’arodo was hoping results might be different this time around, however accepts that his side didn’t quite have the edge to get past an organised PNG side.
“It’s very disappointing for us, we were looking forward to this game today and I think we deserve a little more out of the game today – it could have gone either way,” he says.
“In the end I think it’s a lack of concentration from us and that’s a letdown but congratulations to Papua New Guinea. They’ve come this far, they’ve done well and I think it’s good for football in Papua New Guinea.”
The day’s opening semi-final was a repeat from the 2012 edition of the tournament in Honiara between New Zealand and New Caledonia.
It was a close match, which All Whites coach Anthony Hudson admitted at the final whistle.
“We knew they were a very good team, we knew they had good players. We probably had a bad night but we knew there was going to come a point in the tournament when we were going to be under pressure and what we had to show was a lot of character.”
Les Cagous came out firing on all cylinders and not only did they dominate possession 60-40, they also gave goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic a fairly decent workout.
Cesar Zeoula appeared to have shaken any remaining jetlag from his journey back to the Pacific from France where he plays Ligue 2, and along with Roy Kayara pressed forward to create havoc for New Zealand’s backline to deal with.
Up front for the Caledonians Jean-Philippe Saiko was also hitting his best form of the tournament with some incredible solo runs leaving a number of All Whites scrambling to provide defensive cover.
The break the Kiwis were after came shortly after the restart as a Chris Wood free kick was misjudged by Jelen Ixolee who tipped it over his own head and into the back of the net.
Possession remained in New Caledonia’s favour in the second half and the number of shots they had increased however Marinovic covered his area well to keep some stunning strikes at bay.
New Zealand captain Chris Wood was pleased to get on the board, but his main focus was getting the win and progressing in the competition.
“Of course it’s always nice to score but the main thing is we’re through to the next stage,” Wood says.
“We came up against a very tough side but it’s what we do. We dig in, we fight and we came out with the right result.”
It was a disappointing end to the tournament for New Caledonia’s veteran captain Bertrand Kai, especially following such an outstanding performance from his team.
“It was a great performance from us, we knocked on New Zealand’s door with the way we played tonight,” he says.
“We didn’t put our chances away and were made to pay for a small lapse in concentration, but we’re incredibly proud of our appearances here in this tournament.”
New Zealand will play Papua New Guinea in the final of the 2016 OFC Nations Cup at Sir John Guise Stadium in Port Moresby on Saturday 11 June at 4pm.
This release is available at www.oceaniafootball.com
Source: OFC Media Office