Liberato Cacace’s first goal for New Zealand has taken them into Thursday’s final of the Oceania FIFA World Cup qualifying tournament in Qatar.
Despite two-thirds of possession and a host of chances, the All Whites were unable to break the semi-final deadlock against Tahiti until Cacace scored the game’s only goal in the 71st minute.
The win means New Zealand will go head-to-head against the Solomon Islands in the tournament final after their 3-2 win against Papua New Guinea in today’s other semi-final.
Hay makes nine changes for the semi-final
Head coach Danny Hay made nine changes to the starting line-up he fielded for New Zealand’s 7-1 win against New Caledonia, putting out what looked to be his strongest side.
Clearly, he was not going to risk mirroring Italy’s shock loss to North Macedonia and World Cup exit by underestimating the Tahiti challenge, as remote as it was.
Tahiti had not won an international game for 1,043 days; they had lost their seven previous encounters with the Kiwis, conceding 27 goals; they had not scored against New Zealand since 1994.
Underdogs, maybe, but the Tahitians gave New Zealand no peace from the start.
They clattered into the New Zealanders, often going two on one, and within the opening eight minutes, two Tahitians had been given yellow cards.
The worst fouls were reserved for Niko Kirwan, a constant tormentor down the right flank, and Matthew Garbett who was causing problems in midfield with neat passes and probes.
Joe Bell was sandwiched, copping a double set of high elbows.
As in their group games, New Zealand’s game plan was to dominate possession and to tire out the Tahitians.
The Tahitians picked up their third yellow in the 26th minute and referee Abdulrahman Al Jassim indicated they were testing his patience. The rough stuff eased.
New Zealand stepped up the pressure, a breeze at their backs.
On the half-hour, the All Whites (again playing in their black strip) had their best chance so far, when Garbett headed over the bar from close range.
Bell struck from 20 metres, his shot taken cleanly by busy Tahitian ‘keeper Teave Teamotuaitau.
Callum McCowatt had two left-footed shots in as many minutes, saved by Teamotuaitau.
A Chris Wood header went close in the 37th minute.
Elijah Just shot into the side netting.
Surely, the New Zealand barrage would yield a goal?
Despite four minutes of added time, they could not find a way through and Tahiti went into the break no doubt delighted at the 0-0 scoreline.
New Zealand had enjoyed 67% of the ball, creating nine goal attempts with five on target.
Cacace’s goal withstands VAR scrutiny … to everyone’s relief
The second half started strongly for the All Whites with captain Winston Reid almost bundling the ball home with his knee at a corner.
In the 50th minute, Liberato Cacace became the first Kiwi to go into the referee’s book.
Five minutes later, defender Bill Tuiloma almost celebrated his 27th birthday with a goal, powerfully heading a Bell corner straight at the ‘keeper.
Just fired wide from 14 metres.
Coach Hay made his first change after an hour, bringing on Alex Greive for McCowatt.
The breakthrough finally came after 70 minutes when Cacace pushed a ball into the box and went for the return pass. Greive steered the ball into the danger area and Garbett got a touch, setting it up for Cacace to thump the ball into the net.
Main photo: Cacace scores the crucial goal.
The goal had to withstand a VAR check — the first day’s use of the technology at the tournament — and the relief was palpable.
With 77 minutes gone, Tahiti had their first chance of the half, a somewhat hopeful shot from 30 metres by Tauhiti Keck.
As the Tahitians started to take more risks, the New Zealanders balanced caution at the back with quick breaks.
With two minutes left, Greive had a shot blocked.
All Whites supporters endured five painful minutes of added time.
Still time for another Tahitian yellow card. And another as Greive was bundled over. Then a yellow for Greive, apparently for making the most of the situation.
At last, the whistle blew.
For goalkeeper Stefan Marinovich, making his first appearance at the tournament, the clean sheet must count as one of the easiest of his career.
New Zealand dominated possession with 68% of the ball.
They had 16 goal attempts, with eight on target; Tahiti had one goal effort. The corner count was 8-1 in New Zealand’s favour.
The foul count was shared 19-19 while Tahiti collected four yellows, and New Zealand three.
20 Stefan MARINOVIC (GK), 2 Winston REID (c), 4 Nando PIJNAKER, 6 Bill TUILOMA, 7 Elijah JUST, 8 Joe BELL, 9 Chris WOOD, 12 Callum McCOWATT, 13 Liberato CACACE, 19 Matt GARBETT, 22 Niko KIRWAN.
Subs: 1 Matthew GOULD (GK), 23 Jamie SEARLE (GK), 3 Francis DE VRIES, 5 Tommy SMITH, 11 Joe CHAMPNESS, 14 Andre DE JONG, 15 Alex GREIVE, 16 Nikko BOXALL, 17 Logan ROGERSON, 18 Cam HOWIESON, 21 Tim PAYNE. Coach: Danny HAY.
1 Teave TEAMOTUAITAU (GK), 2 Mauri HEITAA, 7 Raimana LI FUNG KUEE, 9 Tauhiti KECK, 10 Teaonui TEHAU (c), 11 Roonui TEHAU, 14 Eddy KASPARD, 15 Dylan PAAMA, 18 Francois HAPIPI, 19 Heimano BOUREBARE, 20 Alvin TEHAU.
Subs: 16 Francois DECORET (GK), 22 Anapa DEBRUYNE (GK), 3 Kevin BARBE, 4 Jean-Claude PARAUE, 5 Viritua TIAIHO, 6 Terai BREMOND, 8 Yann PENNEQUIN-LE BRAS, 12 Rainui TZE-YU, 13 Gervais CHAN KAT, 21 Tutehau TUFARIUA, 23 Roonui TINIRAUARII. Coach: Samuel GARCIA.
New Zealand play the Solomon Islands in the tournament final on Thursday March 31 (6am NZT).
The game will be played at the Grand Hamad Stadium, venue of the semi-finals.
The final will be broadcast live by Sky Sports 7.