By PHILIP LILOMO
After two weeks of thrilling, nail-biting, tension-filled soccer, we finally have the two teams who will take the field at Lawson Tama Stadium hoping to lift the trophy and bring joy to everyone in their province.
The 2020 Solomon Cup comes to an epic conclusion tomorrow (Saturday 13 Dec) with the grand-final set to kick-off at 3pm.
Western Tomoko are coming off of one of the most shocking matches in the tournament’s history, demolishing one of the pre-tournament favourites Kakamora 7-1 in the semi-final. This will be Tomoko’s second appearance in the Solomon Cup final and first in 29 years. Their only other final appearance was back in 1991 when Honiara Warriors defeated them 4-2 in extra time. They are hoping to win their first Solomon Cup title.
On the other side, Malaita Eagles will be making their sixth appearance in a Solomon Cup final, and they already won four titles. To get to this one, they had to slog through three extremely tough games in a very difficult group A which also included their grand final opponents tomorrow. They have scored 15 goals in getting to the final, relying on their team defense and in-form forwards.
Tomoko themselves have scored an impressive 17 goals enroute to the final but unlike the Eagles, the Westerners struggled in defense in their 2 opening matches conceding 8 goals in the process.
Tomoko has since worked overtime in patching the leak in their defense and a remarkable turnaround saw them kept clean sheets in their last 3 games including during the semi.
As Malaita Eagles found out during the two teams’ earlier meeting in the group stage which ended 0-0, the Tomoko defense is a rejuvenated one that needs to stand firm again tomorrow against a talented Eagles attack.
Similarly, on the other end of the pitch, Eagles have the best defense in the tournament so far which has allowed only 3 goals past them.
The speed and pace of striker Jaygray Sipakana has been instrumental in getting Tomoko to the final evident in his 7 goals so far to lead the golden boot race.
Tomoko’s ability to set free Sipakana and left winger Arnold Neboth with those long balls has been the key, however, safe to say that did not work against a firm Eagles back-four in the group stage.
“We have attacking strategies based on previous games (long balls did not work against Eagles the first time) and we have looked at how we will take on Eagles this time round,” Tomoko coach, Hite, said after the semis.
Hite is expected to name an unchanged side for the final, meaning the back four led by the experienced Steve Riqeo and Martin Rence continues in defense, captain Leonard Rokoto mans the mid field and striker Jaygray Sipakana retains his spot up front.
The formation is less obvious, as the very pliable midfield of Tomoko can take many shapes: 4-4-2, 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1 are all possibilities.
After thrashing the Kakamora 7-1 in the semi-final, they enter the finale with outrageous momentum, but based on the live stream recording of their last two victories, there are genuine weaknesses for the mighty Eagles to take advantage of.
“This is a time for us to express our football. I believe Malaita will play to its very best and Tomoko is privileged to be playing the final against the current champions,” Tomoko coach, Hite, told a pre-match press conference today.
For Malaita Eagles, the big pre-game news is surrounding the possible availability of some players who have received knocks from previous games as highlighted by coach Terry Oiaka.
“After the semis we had a couple of knocks due to fatigue as well as due to the fact that we played a lot of matches this past week,” he said. “We are monitoring the players and hopefully they will be ready for tomorrow.”
Oiaka said for some of his players this is their first time to be playing in a big tournament, however, emphasized that the team spirit in camp is ‘good’.
“It [the final] will be tough as we experienced in the group stage. Tomoko is a free scoring team. They score a lot of goals so it won’t be easy for us,” he said.
The Eagles coach highlighted the Tomoko number 10, Sipakana, as a threat for the Eagles in the final.
“But the most important thing is for us to be ready,” he said.
Tomoko coach, Hite said like Malaita, the majority of the Tomoko players are from the islands.
“To come over to Honiara and play in a national tournament like the Solomon Cup and play in the final is a big achievement for them,” he said.
“We are excited to play in the final. Malaita has a very good team and we are going to give the defending champions a good game,” Hite added.
The coach stressed that the Tomoko squad does not have any major injury scare leading up to the final.
Both coaches, meanwhile call on their respective supporters to cheer their teams in a good and respectful manner and enjoy the final in the true spirit of football tomorrow.
Whichever side wins tomorrow, overall, it’s a win for football in the Solomon Islands having begin the festive season with 2 successful weeks of football fest at our home of football, Lawson Tama.