Hosts Solomon Islands will lock horns with New Caledonia in the men’s football gold medal match of the Sol2023 Pacific Games after winning their respective semi-final clashes before a jam-packed Lawson Tama Stadium on Tuesday.
Under the scotching Honiara heat and the watchful eyes of some 18,000 soccer fanatics, New Caledonia booked themselves a spot in Saturday’s grand finale thanks to a hard earned 1-0 victory over Vanuatu.
The closely contested match saw New Caledonia, 2019 Pacific Games runners-up seal their fate with a lone goal late on in the first stanza.
Despite Vanuatu’s efforts to pull a goal back after the break, Les Cagous held on for the victory.
New Caledonia Coach, Johann Sidaner said he was proud of his boys in sticking to their game plan and shutting down Vanuatu’s onslaught in the second half – ultimately securing them the victory.
He added that his team is prepared and are aiming to scoop gold in Saturday’s final.
The second semi-final saw hosts Solomon Islands defeat a formidable Fiji side in front of one of the largest crowds the stadium has ever hosted.
Star striker Raphael Lea’ai opened the scoring for the hosts from the penalty box late on in the first half to give them a crucial lead. Local football icon Micah Lealafa, who came out of retirement just before the Games, added the second after the breather.
Fiji’s hopes of a comeback proved futile when one of their players was sent off for a dangerous tackle on the hosts’ pacey attacker, John Orobulu.
The hosts held on for the hard-earned victory much to the delight of the home supporters after the final whistle.
Solomon Islands coach Felipe Arango credited his team’s impressive defence for their success, citing the importance of having a strong defensive strategy as key in winning the tournament. He also commended his team’s collective effort, highlighting the contributions of players across all positions.
“We knew it was going to be tough, Fiji is a fantastic team. They compete extremely well. I told the boys that we have to have the best defence to win the tournament and today we achieved exactly that.”
Looking ahead to Saturday’s gold medal match with New Caledonia, Arango said: “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the boys to write their history and be able to win at home. The final is a game for the players, for their families and for the country.”
Despite the defeat, Fiji Coach Rob Sherman expressed optimism about settling for the third place, praising his players for stepping up to the challenge without their star man Roy Krishna.
“We did play some good football and still have the opportunity to compete for the bronze medal at Lawson Tama on Friday. We’ll go back, recover and will be ready to put up a good fight against Vanuatu,” he said.
The Sol2023 football gold medal match will be held at the National Stadium on Saturday 2 December at 10am.
Fantastic Friday and Super Saturday tickets for the finals sell at $100 (SBD) and can be purchased at Our Telekom, Point Cruz.
Meanwhile in the women’s competition on Tuesday at SIFF Academy, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu both secured their spots in the fifth place play-off semi-finals of the Sol2023 women’s football competition.
The hosts narrowly saw off Tonga 1-0 to progress, whilst Vanuatu also booked its place in the play-off semis after a hard fought 2-1 victory over Tahiti.
An early fourth minute lead by striker Lorina Solosaia all but secured victory for Solomon Islands, who held on throughout the entire match with some class defending which denied Tonga’s search for a comeback goal.
Solomons coach Batram Suri said after the match: “I think the positive thing from today’s match was the early goal. We should have scored more goals but, all in all, I am happy with our performance. Our defence today was class and as such we are confident we can win our remaining matches.”
Suri conceded they would need to step up going into the play-off semis.
Solomon Islands and Vanuatu progress to the semis alongside American Samoa.
By Carlos Aruafu and Timothy Inifiri Jnr, Pacific Games News Service