FIFA World Cup Russia qualifying in roars back into life in Oceania with Tahiti and Solomon Islands kicking off Stage 3 in Papeete on Monday night (local time).
The Group B pair are the first of OFC’s six remaining teams to get underway with Oceania’s path to Russia ultimately winding through South America in the form of a home and away tie against the fifth best nation from CONMEBOL.
New Zealand and New Caledonia are also involved on Match Days one and two in the November window – their first Group A clash is in Auckland on Saturday – while Fiji (Group A) and Papua New Guinea (Group B) are waiting for the next match days in March to restart their campaigns.
With so much at stake, the start of a new phase of qualifying may lend itself to a cautious apprach and indeed the head to head records of the two teams in FIFA World Cup qualifying – three wins apiece and three draws from their nine encounters – point to a tight tussle.
Solomon Islands coach Moses Toata conceded a draw might be a satisfactory result from an away qualifier but vowed not to forego the attacking, possession-based style the Bonitos are renowned for in their quest for all three points.
“We’re away from home so a draw may be a good result for us but we are trying to take all three points and if we do that will be a big bonus,” Toata said.
“We will also play without the pressure and expectation that comes from playing in front of a home crowd and if we play to our strengths then that will give us the best possible chance to get a result.”
Henry Fa’arodo, poised to be his nation’s most capped player, will once again captain the side but they will be without talsimanic striker Benji Totori who has remained in Honiara due to personal reasons.
Toata, who stepped down as Solomon Islands coach after the OFC Nations Cup but is carrying on as caretaker until a permanent replacement is found downplayed the loss of Totori.
“We are missing a key player, but that should not affect our performance at all as the players we have are well prepared and ready to go out and get a result.”
Tahiti qualified for Stage 3 by finishing in the top three of their group at the OFC Nations Cup in July but only just missed out on a place in the semi-finals – and the chance to defend their Oceania crown – on goal difference to New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea.
Coach Ludovic Graugnard says with a clean slate for the next phase of FIFA World Cup qualification his side will have no trouble dusting themselves off.
“It’s our nature, and also mine, to be a competitor, so as soon as they see the Solomon players at Pater Stadium they are going to be boosted to try to take the win,” said Graugnard.
“Playing this kind of game in Tahiti is not an opportunity they have every week end. The motivation? They have it already, I don’t have anything special to do about it.”
“These are the first two games of the group, if we want to still have a chance in March for the next games, we have to take some points out of these first two games.”
Ludovic is missing the services of Tamatoa Teauira (French Cup), Henri Caroine and Rainui Aroita (both injured) and even though his opposition are a player or two short, the Toa Aito coach is full of healthy respect.
“The Solomon players are very technical, they like making the game, they have a clean game. We don’t call them the Brazilians of the Pacific for nothing, they are very talented.”
“I know that they are also missing players, like Benjamin Totori and Micah Lea’alafa the two big stars of their country actually.
“We know each other well. We are going to produce a tactical game plan to disrupt them because if we let them play their game, we may have some problems.”
The match kicks off at 7pm on Monday night (local time) with a return fixture in Honiara on November 13.
Tahiti vs. Solomon Islands
Monday 7 November
Kick-off: 19h00 (local time)
Referee: Mädäric LACOUR (NCL)
Assistant Referee 1: Bertrand BRIAL (NCL)
Assistant Referee 2: John PAREANGA (COK)
Fourth Official: Robinson BANGA (VAN)
Vital Statistics: Tahiti and Solomon Islands are closely matched in FIFA World Cup qualifying head-to-head. Each side has won three of the nine encounters with three more drawn. The last two matches, in Stage 3 of FIFA World Cup qualyficyig for Brazil 2014 were split with the home side winning 2-0 on each occasion.
The Players: Defender Jonathan Tehau has a knack for scoring important goals. He scored the only goal as Tahiti beat Solomon Islands in the semi final of the 2012 OFC Nations Cup en route to Tahit qualifying for the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup. Then in Brazil, he netted an historic header against Nigeria , Tahiti’s only goal of the tournament.
Coach Quote: Coach Quote: “When you play for your country it’s always important. All the six countries remaining in Oceania want to play in the final, to have the opportunity to play against the 5th best team from South America. We know that we have limited resources for our preparation, many missing players for different reasons – and we will have more missing players for the return game – so we are going to have two tough confrontations.”
Tahiti: 1. Mikael ROCHE (GK), 2. Taumihau TIATIA, 3. Jay WARREN, 4. Matatia PAAMA, 5. Ricky AITAMAI, 6. Tunoa TAVAERAI, 7. Heirauarii SALEM, 8. Jonathan TEHAU, 9. Tauhiti KECK, 10. Teaonui TEHAU, 11. Sylvain GRAGLIA, 12. Mauarii TEHINA, 13. Steevy CHONG-HUE, 14. Manuarii HAUATA, 15. Heimano BOUREBARE, 16. Stevens HIRIGA (GK), 17. Tefai FAEHAU, 18. Valdo YAKEULA, 19. Alvin TEHAU.
Vital Statistics: Solomon Islands are yet to claim a point from their World Cup qualifying trips to French Polynesia, losing 4-2 on their first trip in 1992 and 2-0 at this stage in 2013.
The Players: Solomon Warriors forward Gibson Daudau has been drafted in to replace talismanic striker Benjamin Totori who is unavailable to travel for personal reasons. The well-travelled Henry Fa’arodo, a former Team Wellington, Perth Glory, Auckland City and Hekari United player is set to become his nation’s most capped player.
Coach Quote: “I expect a very tough match against Tahiti especially on their home soil. But we will do our best to preprare well and get the points.”
“I’m banking on the experience of the players we have available and experience will be a key factor in determining the team I put out.
Solomon Islands: 1. Philip MANGO (GK), 2. Haddis AENGARI, 3. Emmanuel POILA, 4. Michael BOSO, 5. Freddie KINI, 6. Michael SIRA, 7. Atkin KAUA, 8. Joses NAWO, 9. Gibson DAUDAU, 10. Tigi MOLEA, 11. Mathias IANI, 12. Zantas KABINI (GK), 13. James NAKA, 14. Moffat KILIFA, 15. Jerry DONGA, 16. Joachim WAROI, 17. Junior ALBERT, 18. Henry FA’ARODO (c).
Coach: Moses TOATA (SOL)