17 Aug 2017

Sport: Solomons claim underdog tag for World Cup qualifier

2:50 pm on 17 August 2017

Solomon Islands football coach Felipe Vega-Arango has named a 21 man squad to contest the first of two matches against New Zealand in the final stage of Oceania World Cup qualifying but says his side will be overwhelming underdogs.

Striker Clement Baegeni and Malaitian teammates Clifton Aumae and Andrew Raragia have earned call-ups to the senior Bonitos team, while experienced midfielder James Naka has been overlooked for the first leg at the start of next month.

"I am happy with the way the players have been responding in training," said Vega-Arango, who was appointed head coach in April.

"We are working on our game plan to approach the two games and the players selected are based on our system."

James Naka attempts to round Tahiti goalkeeper Michael Roche.

James Naka missed selection. Photo: Solomon Islands Football Federation

Clement Baegeni took home the Golden Boot award in the Solomon Cup domestic competition and featured in the recent friendly against Vanuatu but is keen to make a start in the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers.

"It's a dream come true for me to join the national team and I'll do my best, as I will be expected to," he said.

"I'm humbly proud now to represent the country."

The overall winner will face the fifth placed team from South America in a home and away playoff in November.

Solomon Islands players celebrate reaching the OFC Stage 3 final against New Zealand.

Solomon Islands players celebrate reaching the OFC Stage 3 final against New Zealand. Photo: OFC Media

Nothing to lose

Felipe Vega-Arango admits the Solmons' surge into the final round of regional qualifying was somewhat unexpected.

The Bonitos recorded back to back wins against Papua New Guinea in June, in the Spaniard's first games in charge, which saw them top their qualifying group, ahead of Tahiti and PNG.

"A few months ago I don't think too many people were thinking that we're going to make it but it's a bonus also that the players have that because they have been working really hard," he said.

"Something really positive about playing New Zealand is that the players realise if you work hard in life most of the times things go your way.

"They are going to play a professional team, New Zealand. Everybody knows that New Zealand has been the best team in the region for many many years, I don't think anybody has beaten them in many many years."

Bonitos coach Vega Arango Alonso.

Bonitos coach Vega Arango Alonso. Photo: OFC Media

Vega-Arango originally arrived in Honiara in March as the new technical director for the Solomon Islands Football Federation before being asked to combine both roles six weeks later.

"I have to make sure that even though I do my job as a coach and we do the right things to try to make the team competitive enough, for example after the PNG match the players were happy and celebrating and I couldn't even do it," he said.

"Because next day I had meetings with the Olympic Committee then I had to work as technical director so it's a lot of work, both of them".

While his job is full of challenges the Spaniard is enjoying his new environment.

"Technical director is really nice job everything that you do you can see the results, " he said.

"Coaching is what I actually like to do the most but it's completely different roles because (as) technical director my day is over, I go home and I can relax.

"As a head coach my day is never over - I go home and I start thinking about training, I start thinking about the players and I start thinking what else can I do".

Solomon Islands celebrate a goal in Honiara.

Solomon Islands celebrate a goal in Honiara. Photo: OFC Media

The first leg is in Auckland on 1 September, with the return match four days later in Honiara.

The aggregate winner will advance to a two-legged playoff against the fifth placed team from South America to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Solomon Islands squad:

Philip Mango - Marist FC

Zantas Kabini - Marist FF

Desmond Tutu - Kossa

Nelson Sale - Western United

Emmanuel Poila - Solomon Warriors

Haddis Aengari - Solomon Warriors

Richard Hiromana - Marist FC

Robert Laua - Marist FC

Michael Boso - Marist FC

Andrew Raragia - Henderson Eels

Joses Nawo - Henderson Eels

Jeffrey Bule - Marist FC

Atkin Kaua - Marist FC

Gagame Feni - Solomon Warriors

Timothy Bakale - Marist FC

Micah Lea'alafa - Auckland City FC

Clifton Aumae - Henderson Eels

Jerry Donga - Solomon Warriors

Henry Fa'arodo - Marist FC

Benjamin Totori - Three Kings United

Clement Baegeni - Henderson Eels