Group A of the OFC Nations Cup has been thrown wide open after a highly-dramatic afternoon at Lawson Tama Stadium in Honiara, Solomon Islands.As expected, Vanuatu swept aside Samoa without much hassle - although they will be disappointed not to have added further to their goal difference in the 5-0 success - but the outcome of the day's other clash was far more of an eyebrow-raiser.
Most onlookers had picked Pacific Games champions New Caledonia, so impressive in their first-up win over Vanuatu, to notch another victory against Tahiti but their opponents had other ideas and powered to a thrilling 4-3 win.
Les Cagous' cause was not helped by the dismissal of two players - Georges Gope-Fenepej in the first half and Jean Patrick Wakanumune in the second - and that ill discipline could cost them dearly as it has opened the door on their fellow semi-final contenders' chances of progressing. With two wins behind them, Tahiti are now in the box seat but both New Caledonia and Vanuatu can still catch them by earning three points in the final round of Group A play on Tuesday.
While the sending offs were a major advantage, it would be unfair to suggest that was the only reason for Tahiti's victory and they in fact took the lead before Gope-Fenepej's 30th-minute banishment. All the players were still on the park when Lorenzo Tehau swung a corner onto the head of brother Alvin in the 19th minute and his sibling made no mistake in tucking it away.
If Tahiti taking the lead was unexpected, what then unfolded was straight from a work of fiction as the two French territories, traditional sporting foes, battled it out in the most entertaining match of the tournament thus far.
The first piece of drama arrived when Gope-Fenepej was adjudged to have deliberately handled an Angelo Tchen bicycle kick inside the box and New Caledonia suffered a double blow as referee Chris Kerr pointed to the spot before brandishing red.
Tahiti captain Nicolas Vallar slotted home the penalty and - to the great shock of New Caledonia - it was 3-0 just a few minutes later, the Tehau brothers again linking well as Jonathan feed Lorenzo and the latter finished with aplomb.
That left Les Cagous with a massive hill to climb and the task got even tougher when Wakanumune received his marching orders on 53 minutes for a two-footed lunge. It appeared impossible for the nine men of New Caledonia to haul themselves out of such a situation but they somehow found a way back into the contest when Marius Bako dinked the ball over goalkeeper Mikael Roche in the 77th minute.
Against all odds, New Caledonia struck again six minutes later through Jacques Haeko to make it 3-2 and set up a grandstand finish. Now in danger of throwing away what had seemed an unassailable advantage, Tahiti were delighted when substitute Roihau Degage slid the ball home on the counter-attack in the 87th minute but Les Cagous were not done yet, hitting back once more through Dick Kauma with just a minute of regulation time to go. They could not complete the fairytale and find an equaliser though, leaving Tahiti coach Eddy Etaeta to breathe a sigh of relief.
"We played very well in the first half but made it hard for ourselves in the second," he said. "When New Caledonia scored their first goal they gained a lot of confidence and it was much harder for us from then on."
New Caledonia counterpart Alain Moizan was proud of the spirit shown by his players and felt they may have pulled off a remarkable comeback with a full line-up.
"Tahiti took the lead early but as the game wore on they became tired and I'm sure if we had two more players then we could have won," he said.
There was nowhere near as much drama in the first game, Vanuatu pulling off a straightforward win thanks to strikes from Jean Naprapol, Brian Kaltack, Derek Malas, Robert Tasso and Freddy Vava.
The most impressive of the goals was a spectacular volley to Kaltack, who captained his country for the first time in the absence of rested regular skipper Jean Robert Yelou.
"We are excited to get our first win of the tournament," Kaltack said. "We wanted to score more and missed a lot of chances but at least we managed to score five so will have to be happy with that."
Attention will turn to Group B again tomorrow when Papua New Guinea take on defending champions New Zealand at 12pm local time and Fiji face Solomon Islands at 3pm local time.