Nail-biting final day sees Samoa through

​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 though 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.

“We were a little bit lucky given it came down to the final game,” said Samoa coach Phineas Young.

“Our goal was to be top of this group and reach next year’s stage, and now we want to stay in the top eight. It will not be easy next year. We will work hard and prepare good selections for the team.”

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 turned over possession in their own half and Joseph Dan-Tyrell’s short pass on the edge of the penalty area freed striker Andrew Mobberley who easily finished for his second of the tournament.

Mobberley had a similar opportunity to make it two moments later, but this time goalkeeper Sinilau Taufa pawed the ball to safety.

Powerful Samoa defender Faitalia Hamilton-Pama then powered a header narrowly over the crossbar, after he got on the end of a free-kick delivered from the sideline.

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.

Clear sights of goal proved limited for Tonga who were invariably restricted to long-range efforts, notably veteran midfielder Kilife Uele hit a sweet 40-metre free-kick however goalkeeper Faalavelave Matagi made a safe catch under pressure.

The match lost some momentum in the latter stages of the opening half under the early afternoon sun.

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 which had gone up earlier.

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 silkily-skilled Samoa midfielder Hall then nearly lobbed the goalkeeper with an audacious attempt, while fullback Jarrel Sale pinged an effort off the back post as he stormed onto a cross as Samoa threatened to extend their lead.

Tonga coach Timote Moleni was obviously disappointed not to get the much-sought after win for the home crowd but is hopeful that the exposure to top level football for some of his side’s younger recruits will be a boost for the future.

“I really believe in my team, they have the same ability as the other three teams but we were just lacking something,” he says.

“The reason why I included young players is because they are the future of football and we need to support their improvement and development.”

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,

The same pair combined ten minutes later but this time Mitchell skewed his shot wide of the far post

Then Mana’o let fly with a spectacular long-range effort which was tipped narrowly wide, and from the ensuing corner Ryan Samuelu pushed his back-post header wide.

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 final to 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.

“I thought the boys did extraordinarily well, and I thought we played a fantastic game,” said American Samoa coach Larry Mana’o.

“We made two changes to give some bodies some rest, and it worked out, but we still just fell short.”

There was anguish for Cook Islands too, who watched qualification slip from their grasp despite winning their first ever two FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

“We didn’t deserve to get anything out of this match, it is simple really,” said Cook Islands coach Drew Sherman.

“Overall it has been fantastic. The fact that our players are so upset shows how far we have come in a short space of time.