The second participant for Oceania’s 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ play-off will be confirmed over the coming week as Round 3 draws to a conclusion. All interest will focus on home and away ties between Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea whose destiny remains in their own hands. Anxiously watching from afar will be Tahiti, who currently head the three-top group, and can retain their status should results fall in their favour.
It has been a competition of fine margins so far in the Pacific, and the form-book suggests that will continue over the coming week. Awaiting the outcome is New Zealand who have already shored up top spot in their group, with the All Whites currently focussed on this month’s FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia. The Oceania play-off will determine which nation moves on to the intercontinental play-off against the fifth-placed South America side for a ticket to Russia 2018.
The main contest
All eyes will be on Honiara and Port Moresby where 180 minutes of football between Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea will determine the destiny of three nations. Four points for either side over the two legs will be enough to qualify, but anything less will open the way for Tahiti to advance.
Both participants have endured tumultuous fortunes in Stage 3. Solomon Islands saw their 1-0 loss in Tahiti become a 3-0 forfeit after fielding an ineligible player last November. Only a last gasp win in the return kept their campaign alive. They will need all their trademark home support in Honiara on Friday if they are to reprise their only previous appearance in the play-off final, which was achieved during their storied Germany 2006 campaign.
Papua New Guinea lost a host of key personnel for a variety of reasons ahead of last year’s ties against Tahiti. While the 2016 OFC Nations Cup runners-up ultimately lost at home, they somehow rebounded in the return, thus proving the squad’s fortitude. Lively attacker Nigel Dabinyaba could be a costly loss for the visit to Honiara, but with several squad players now based overseas, the Kapuls boast a new-found level of depth.
The other contest
Though their Russia 2018 ambitions are over, two nations with proud histories will do battle when Fiji meet New Caledonia over the coming week. New Caledonia pushed New Zealand hard over two legs, but one point from their two outings left them out of the picture. It is a disappointing result for Les Cagous who were within touching distance of a ticket to the Confederations Cup four years ago.
Opponents Fiji were eliminated after successive defeats to the Kiwis, but new French coach Christophe Gamel has set his sights on building a bright future for the Bula Boys. A win and a draw in recent internationals against Solomon Islands suggests his reinvigorated squad is coming along nicely.
Player to watch
Newly-appointed Papua New Guinea captain Michael Foster has proved an inspirational figure for a team that has endured its share of upheaval. An all-action midfielder who plies his trade in Australia’s second-tier, Foster assumed the reins from David Muta.
17 – The selection of high school student Manav Permal is indicative of Fiji plans for long-term growth. The defender won his first cap last week at the age of 17.
“It would be a big achievement for PNG and for football in this country. We haven’t been able to achieve these kind of results in the past.” Papua New Guinea striker Raymond Gunemba on what it would mean for his side to reach the OFC play-off
Wednesday 7 June
Fiji v New Caledonia (Lautoka)
Friday 9 June
Solomon Islands v Papua New Guinea (Honiara)
Sunday 11 June
New Caledonia v Fiji (Noumea)
Tuesday 13 June
Papua New Guinea v Solomon Islands (Port Moresby)