Today – 17th March – begins the FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifiers for OFC. In the race we have eight teams battling for a place in the intercontinental playoff.
Unlike in other editions, this time the qualifiers will be held in Doha, Qatar in a tournament format, identical to the OFC Nations Cup – the changes and venue choice were forced to be done so due COVID-19 precautions.
New Zealand as always since the departure of Australia of OFC is the clear favorite to go to the playoff as they did in 2010, 2014 and 2018 even with their main players arriving only in the third game of the group phase. Here we go for a preview of the first matchdays of the tournament and what to expect from the teams:
COOK ISLANDS VS SOLOMON ISLANDS
In this match we have perhaps the biggest disparity: Cook Islands managed to get all their players together with only a week to go before the start of the qualifiers, Alan Taylor who was appointed coach without practically knowing his entire squad has had little time to work, but guarantees that he has a game plan set up and that the team will make it. They faced a local team in a friendly match and managed to win 2-0. As underdogs as the Cook Islands are, they still have players like Ben Mata and Maro Bonsu-Maro, who raise the quality of the team by a significant margin.
The Solomon Islands side has been on a training camp since the end of November 2021, Felipe Vega-Arango is back in charge again after leading the team in the final qualifying round against New Zealand in the World Cup last cycle beating Tahiti and Papua New Guinea – favorites for the spot at the time. In the squad all eyes inevitably turn to Raphael Le’ai who at 18 already has huge achievements on his resume. Micah Lea’alafa will captain the team, even if he is not arriving in Doha at the best moment of his career he is still a key factor for his national team – his experience playing professionally in South Africa and playing for several years at a high level in the giant Auckland City may be decisive for the team. Felipe Vega-Arango said that the team will face the Cook Islands in the same way and seriousness that would face New Zealand.
On the field we should have the Solomon Islands with the ball creating a lot of opportunities, especially on the flanks, and the Cook Islands defending as best they can. It is the logic as everything from the Cook Islands is still an unknown – we have not seen these players playing together so far, which could be a weakness as the Solomon Islands beat the Queensland Premier League champion – Lions FC – in a very convincing performance.
TAHITI VS VANUATU
This match should be a key confrontation to define who advances on Group A, on one side we have Samuel Garcia’s Tahiti that seems to be a very fast team, with elite passers such as Terai Bremond, Heimano Bourebare, Li Fung Kuee, which should catch one of the best defenses of the continent that has Brian Kaltak, and Jared Clark – who replaces Jason Thomas who is absent from the squad – keeping the level of quality. An interesting weapon that the Polynesian team seems to have are the set pieces, constantly trained by Samuel Garcia. Vanuatu comes from a loss to Fiji in a friendly and Tahiti from a draw with Occitania and a loss to Cognac in their preparation duties.
PAPUA-NEW GUINEA VS NEW ZEALAND
A replay of the 2016 Nations Cup final, both teams arrive very different from that day; New Zealand players in the starting squad for this year’s qualifiers only Kostas Barbarouses played in the final, while Logan Rogerson watched the All Whites’ title from the bench. Stefan Marinovic and Bill Tuiloma also played the final but only will join the team from the second round onwards.
As for the Kapuls, 14 names from that squad are back, but older and without the same physical conditioning, which could be crucial. Also in the middle of the road you have a disastrous loss to the Kiwi U-23 team that made Papua New Guinea lose the chance to compete for the gold medal we Pacific Games, 9 of those players in the field played the 2016 final. The big news for PNG is the good level of football displayed by Tommy Semmy who recently joined the squad. The big doubt is the inclusion of winger David Browne, who is awaiting a response from PNG’s immigration department to again become eligible to play for the national team.
Marcos Gusmão – PNG’s coach – said he is not afraid of New Zealand and that the Kapuls will try to play, retain the ball and not cower in front of the Kiwis, which could be a suicidal tactic given the quality of getting off pressure from players like Clayton Lewis and the 1v1 duels of Joe Champness and Kosta Barbarouses against the wingers. It will be one of the most interesting clashes of the round.
NEW CALEDONIA VS FIJI
As well as Tahiti and Vanuatu it is a very important match for the pretensions of the two teams that tend to fight for the second position in the group. New Caledonia comes from a silver medal in the Pacific Games and will have the return of the legend Georges Gope-Fenepej after 5 years and the reinforcement of the defender Wesley Lautoa, who had a solid career in the French football, always keeping himself in a good level.
On the Fijian side the big asset as always is Roy Krishna who comes from a painful elimination in the Indian Super League even after scoring twice in the qualifier. Another asset for the Bula Boys is on the bench with Flemming Serritslev who led Papua New Guinea to the 2016 Nations Cup final.
The game should be a straight swap, vide whoever wins should put their foot in the semi-final. Fiji comes from a good win over Vanuatu while New Caledonia beat a local team in Qatar by 8-0 this week. Contender for best match of the first round.
All matches will be broadcast by the Eleven Sports streaming network.