by Jeremy Mogi – EM TV Sports, Port Moresby
Cook Islands are within touching distance of passage to through Stage Two of OFC’s 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia qualifying competition after they moved top of the ladder on day two of matches being played in Tonga.
Their 1-0 win over Samoa now puts them just one victory away from the next stage of the competition.
In the second match played on day two of the tournament in Tonga, American Samoa prevailed 2-1 against the host nation, setting up a three-way contest for top spot on Friday’s final day.
The opening match was always going to be crucial to the eventual outcome of the tournament, with both Cook Islands and Samoa securing wins on the opening day.
It was little surprise that both sides opened with high level of intensity, and it didn’t take long for the threat of a goal to be scored.
Paavo Mustonen’s dangerous free kick from distance was stopped by goalkeeper Masi Toetu, just minutes into the game.
Cook Islands always looked likely from set-pieces, but it was a Samoa free kick on the half-hour mark that was the best chance see in the first 30 minutes of the match.
Samoa may have started the match as favourites in the eyes of many, but it was Cook Islands who looked the goods during the opening period, and they were duly rewarded just before the break in spectacular fashion.
Taylor Saghabi, scorer of a hat-trick on the opening day, fired in a free kick from wide on the right which dipped over the despairing hands of Toetu off the underside of the bar and over the line for the opening goal.
The second period continued in a similar vein to the first with two well-matched teams pushing forward at every opportunity.
The match lost a little of its momentum in the dying stages, which suited Cook Islands, who held on to record their second successive win.
American Samoa and hosts Tonga shaped up for the second match with both needing all three points to stay alive, and it was the former who ultimately prevailed, but only after coming from behind in another robust contest.
American Samoa immediately created numerous half-chances, but invariably the final touch proved problematic.
After a non-scoring first half, the second stanza proved to be very different. Tonga netted their first goal just two minutes after the break thanks to an athletic diving header from the ever-dangerous Sione Uhatahi.
However, American Samoa drew level just two minutes later as Justin Mana’o let fly with a superb strike from just outside the penalty area.
And it got even better for American Samoa when skipper, Ramin Ott, grabbed a goal to edge the visitors ahead 2-0.
The contest concluded in end-to-end fashion amid a tense and desperate atmosphere as both sides battled for their FIFA World Cup futures, with American Samoa ultimately edging away with the three points.
Cook Islands now head into the final match day needing just a point from their encounter against American Samoa to secure qualification into Stage Two, but the possibility of three teams finishing on six points still remains a possibility.