By Sirshendu Panth
Kolkata, Oct 14 (IANS) New Caledonia rode skipper Jekob Jeno’s late strike to hold Japan 1-1 in a Group E match but the Asian outfit advanced to the pre-quarterfinals of the FIFA U-17 World Cup encounter here on Saturday.
With the draw, New Caledonia ended their campaign with a cheer as they gained their first ever point in a FiFA World Cup across age categories.
Japan went ahead in the seventh minute through forward Keito Nakamura, but New Caledonia’s Jeno restored parity seven minutes from time at the Vivekananda Yuva Bharati Krirangan encounter.
Japan seemingly paid for their over-confidence as their coach tested the reserve bench by resting as many as nine regulars. They had the bulk of ball possession, got more scoring opportunities, but missed some gilt-edged opportunities, with the woodwork also standing in their way twice.
They finished their group fixtures with four points, five less than France and one ahead of Honduras. Japan will clash against the Group F toppers in the pre-quarterfinals here on October 17.
New Caledonia, on the other hand, did not lose heart despite the waves of Japanese raids in the early minutes of the match, relied on counters and finally ended the 90 minutes on evens stevens.
Located in the Southwest Pacific Ocean, New Caledonia is a special Collectivity of France, with a population of around 280,000 – similar to the Indian towns of Purnia (in Bihar) and Satna (in Madhya Pradesh), and had become the smallest nation to qualify for any World Cup in February when they finished runners up in the OFC U-17 championships.
Along with hosts India, they were the debutants in any FIFA World Cup across age groups and conceded a dozen goals in their first two matches (1-7 to France and 0-5 to Honduras).
And on Saturday, the starting minutes gave the impression that New Caledonia could suffer a similar fate, as Japan were all over them.
Naoki Tsubaki failed to connect a Nakamura pass, and a little later found the post. The match was only four minutes old.
Nakamura, the livewire of the Japanese offence, scored his fourth goal of the tournament three minutes later. The Mitsubishi Yowa player received the ball on the right, swept aside two defenders to cut into the box, and let go an angular shot that went in past goalkeeper Gaizka Ipeze.
Japan should have all but wrapped up the game by the breather, but Akito Tanahashi’s header crashed against the post.
In the 19th minute, Nakamura unleashed a delectable free kick, which Ipeze clears on second attempt.
Amidst the constant flow of traffic at the other end, a rare New Caledonia move resulted in a free kick, but the set piece hit the wall of defenders.
After Japan’s Taichi Yamasaki headed over, New Caledonia went on a counter, but Jules Omei could only managed a skier.
Crossing over, Japan maintained their supremacy, but New Caledonia made the occasional forays.
Midway into the second session, ipeze again rose to the occasion to fist out a rasping long ranger from Toichi Suzuki.
New Caledonia, having nothing to lose, showed more initiatives, and finally found the mark in the 83rd minute. A corner from the right was flicked on by Pierre Bako, and Jakon Jeno outjumped the rivals defenders to head home, triggering wild celebrations among the players and the officials.
(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at [email protected])
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