Sunday, May 20, 2012

Preview: OFC Second Round

Earlier this year, the 2012 OFC Nations Cup was taken away from Fiji due to an ongoing legal dispute between the OFC General Secretary and Fijian authorities and awarded to the Solomon Islands. The group stage of the OFC Nations Cup is doubling as the OFC Second Round, so homefield in the match between Fiji and Solomon Islands has shifted to the Bonitos, who will be playing every match before a packed house in the Lawson Tama Stadium in the country's capital, Honiara.  The 2012 OFC Nations Cup is the biggest sporting event ever staged in the Solomon Islands, and the Bonitos are under pressure to perform.

The pressure is greater in Oceania in June 2012 than in any other confederation with regards to 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying.  The only four eliminations this month will take place in Oceania as the Oceania field is cut from eight to four over a period of six days from 1 June to 6 June.

Group A
At the 2011 Pacific Games held in New Caledonia, the hosts defeated Vanuatu 5-0 on the opening day, and the two teams meet again in Group A play.  Georges Gope-Menefej (AS Magenta) netted a hat trick on that day in August 2011, and he is featured on the roster for the 2012 OFC Nations Cup.  New Caledonia will not be as confident when they face Tahiti, however.  In a semifinal on home soil, New Caledonia needed a last minute equalizer to send the match into extra time, where New Caledonia defeated Tahiti 3-1.  There will be no such home field advantage this time around, so New Caledonia will be wary.  Gope-Menefej scored twice in that match as well.  New Caledonia went on to win the final of the 2011 Pacific Games paced by the scoring exploits of ten-goal scorer Bertrand Kai (Hienghene Sport), so they are resounding favorites to advance as one of the top two finishers from Group A.  Samoa provided great thrills during their first-place finish in the OFC First Round, but expectations are low for round two.  Kiwi FC of their domestic league will provide Samoa with midfielder Silao Malo and forward Luki Gosche, but Samoa are likely to finish fourth in the group.

The crucial matchup will be between Tahiti and Vanuatu for the second spot in Group A.  Vanuatu are going with a youth movement, which they hope will pay dividends quickly.  The stars are keeping it inside the family for Vanuatu.  Midfielder Michel Kaltak plays for regional powerhouse Hekari United (Papua New Guinea), and young cousins defender Brian Kaltak and forward Jean Kaltak both play for Teouma Academy in the domestic league.  Jean already has nine goals for the national team at age 17.  Tahiti by contrast is overflowing with experience, especially after the recent appearance of 2010 and 2011 domestic champion AS Tefana in the final of the 2012 O-League.  Goalkeeper Xavier Samin plays for Tefana, as does defender Angelo Tchen.  Forward and captain Naea Bennett lines up for AS Pirae.  Expect the experience of Tahiti to win out over the youth of Vanuatu to nip the second spot in the group.  Both teams should be thanking their luck that they avoided the more difficult Group B.

Group B
Fiji and Papua New Guinea met at the 2011 Pacific Games in a September 2011 matchup.   Fiji won on that day 2-0 to advance to the semifinals, but there they met up with Solomon Islands on a neutral pitch.  The Bonitos defeated Fiji 2-1 in extra time, a bad sign for Fiji who are tasked with playing the Bonitos on the road during Group B action.  Based on these results, Solomon Islands are expected to take the second spot in the group, with Fiji eliminated in third and Papua New Guinea eliminated in fourth.  Papua New Guinea boast domestic league hero Kema Jack of the 2010 O-League champion Hekari United at forward, but his presence will not be enough to advance.  Hosts Solomon Islands boast lots of talent, highlighted by attacking midfielder Henry Fa'arodo (Team Wellington, New Zealand) and forwards Benjamin Totori and James Naka (Koloale).  Koloale play in the Lawson Tama Stadium, so Totori and Naka will be used to finding the back of the net in this facility.  Naka is no stranger to the big stage, having featured in four FIFA Beach Soccer World Cups.

In first place will be found New Zealand.  The All Whites are the dominant team in the region and boost star power that no other Oceanian team can claim.  The list of players plying their trade in England is increasing every season, and the current crop includes defenders Ryan Nelsen (Tottenham, pictured #6) and Winston Reid (West Ham, #4) and forward Chris Wood (West Bromwich Albion, #20).  Young forward Kosta Barbarouses plays in Russia for Alania Vladikavkaz.  2010 FIFA World Cup hero goalkeeper Mark Paston (#1) plays in the A-League for Wellington Phoenix.  His club teammates featured on this OFC Second Round roster include defenders Tony Lochhead (#3) and Ben Sigmund and midfielders Leo Bertos (#11) and Jeremy Brockie.  Fellow A-Leaguer Shane Smeltz (#9) of Perth Glory is the all-time leading goalscorer in the history of the A-League.  Rory Fallon (Aberdeen, Scotland, #14) scored the header that sent the All Whites to South Africa 2010 over Bahrain.  However, New Zealand did suffer their only loss of the 2010 FIFA World Cup to Fiji 2-0 in November 2008 behind two goals from Roy Krishna (Waitakere United, New Zealand), widely known as the jewel of the Fijian strikeforce.  Fiji's midfield will be controlled by Pita Baleitoga of Hekari United.

Expect New Caledonia, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Solomon Islands to come through.

Match Previews:
Squad Lists
New Caledonia
New Zealand
Papua New Guinea
Solomon Islands

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