By Jeremy Mogi – EM TV Sports
Samoa won through to Stage 2 of the OFC 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Qualifiers on goal difference, amid a dramatic conclusion to the four-stage tournament in Tonga.
American Samoa fell just one goal short of unlikely progress following a 2-0 win over Cook Islands.
Defeat for the Cook Islands, who started the day at the top, saw them relegated to third, also equal at the top on points.
Samoa’s 3-0 win over Tonga means they will now feature at next year’s OFC Nations Cup, which doubles as Stage 2 FIFA World Cup Russia qualifying, where they will feature in a group alongside Oceania champions Tahiti, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea.
The early match saw Tonga, with little but pride to play for, open brightly. And they seemed set to take the lead in just the second minute, but Sione Uhatahi struck the post from an acute angle having rounded the goalkeeper.
It was to prove a costly miss as Samoa took the lead on nine minutes.
Tonga were showing plenty of willingness to earn possession and attack, but their combination in the attacking third was invariably lacking.
Suddenly Samoa doubled the lead as a cross-field pass found John Hall at the back post, who rifled home an impressive low shot inside the far post.
The final chance of the half came with the very last kick as Dan-Tyrell fired a spectacular long-range strike just centimetres over the bar.
The match continued to stretch out in the second half with the teams playing their third match in four days. The contest, however, remained in the balance with Samoa seeking a potentially crucial third goal, and Tonga always looking a chance to get back into the contest.
Samisoni Mafi had the ball in the net for the home side only to be denied by the offside flag .
Samoa started to lose momentum in the latter stages, just as they did against Cook Islands on Wednesday, however it was they who netted the final goal of the contest.
Ten minutes from time Samoa made it 3-0 from virtually nothing. The ball found its way to Hall wide on the edge of the penalty area and he fired a textbook low shot into the goal, reprising his first-half effort.
The early result left American Samoa needing to win by three to overhaul both Samoa and Cook Islands, who required just a point to advance.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the second match was a tough and at-times confrontational encounter, given how much was on the line.
Opportunities to break the deadlock were limited, and the first tangible sight of goal didn’t arrive until the 20-minute mark. The first saw Aloali’i Mitchell release Justin Mana’o but goalkeeper Junior Lupena stood tall and made a crucial block,
American Samoa’s skilful midfield were now coming to the fore, but they desperately needed a goal. They finally got it in spectacular fashion as Mitchell fired home the sweetest of long-range’s dead-ball strikes just before the hour mark.
At the other end Cook Islands were not playing at the same level as their past two matches with opportunities limited, most notably top-scorer Taylor Saghabi saw his shot blocked by a defender near the goal line.
Then it was the turn of Mana’o to double American Samoa’s lead in similar fashion to their first with an equally impressive free-kick.
That left American Samoa a goal away from taking the qualification spot. And while Saghabi hit the crossbar late on, the best chance saw substitute Demetrius Beauchamp find the target after dribbling all the way to goal during extra time with American Samoa’s opportunity for a pivotal late goal going begging.