Victories to Ba FC and Team Wellington in Group B of the OFC Champions League on Wednesday night in Koné, New Caledonia have set the scene for a thrilling final day showdown on Saturday.
Fiji’s Ba left it late to gain their three points over a stubborn Puaikura with Saula Waqa scoring the game’s only goal nine minutes from time, while Team Wellington scored two goals in the dying stages to edge hosts Hienghène Sport 3-1.
Team Wellington stay ahead of the Group B race with six points while Ba FC are within striking distance on four and must beat the New Zealand champions when they go head to head on match day three on Saturday evening if they are to reach the semi-finals.
With only one team progressing to the semis, Hienghène and Puaikura are now out of contention.
Ba’s win didn’t come easily, in fact coach Imdad Ali was taken with Puaikura’s approach to the match admitting the Cook Islands champions were difficult to break down.
“I had in mind that Puaikura would be playing a little more defensively,” said Ali.
“But as the game went on they pushed further forward and it was good for us to be able to play.”
Their efforts were finally rewarded in the latter stages of the second half when Waqa – guilty of wasting opportunities in the first half – broke through to score the winning goal and redeem them for previous missed chances.
“We played well but we missed so many scoring opportunities,” Ali said.
“If we scored those it would’ve been a much different score line, however three points is enough for us.”
Yet to register a point in the competition, Puaikura FC put up another credible showing against one of the most experienced OFC Champions League sides and impressed both the crowd at Stade Yoshida and their coach Kevin Fallon.
“You can’t expect much more from them to be honest,” said Fallon.
“They’ve come on well and it was probably the worst bit of defending that Ba scored from, but prior to that there’d been some wonderful bits of defending and good defensive organisation.”
“We read it right tonight but we just missed by the skin of our teeth.”
In the second match of the evening, Tom Jackson gave Wellington a 12th minute lead by lobbing Rocky Nyikeine after the Hienghène goalkeeper had raced out to clear the initial danger.
In a high tempo match the gloves of Rocky Nyikeine and Scott Basalaj saw plenty of work throughout the match but Basalaj was left with no chance when Kai scored an early contender for goal of the Champions League season just after the half-hour mark.
With a pacey Miguel Kayara cross heading behind him, Kai pivoted and connected with an overhead kick to send the home crowd into frenzy.
The tempo escalated in the second spell but Wellington’s experience came in to play when Guillermo Moretti bundled a free kick over the line to pull ahead in the 84th minute and then Andy Bevin secured the win with a classy curling shot into Nyikeine’s top left corner.
“It was a roller-coaster of a game and I’m proud of my team for standing up to a team that threw everything at us,” said Team Wellington coach Jose Figuiera, “and I’m proud as well for the way we stuck to our plan and ground it out through what were some really tough moments.”
With their Champions League dream over, Hienghène Sport coach Felix Tagawa did not want to dwell on tonight’s defeat but instead on how they could finish their campaign.
“We are in a competition and we’re here to try and win every match. But also we want to win to end on a positive note,” he said.
“We will recuperate and prepare for the next match.”
On Friday, Group A of the OFC Champions League resumes in Noumea when Tahiti’s AS Central Sport face Lupe Ole Soaga from Samoa followed by New Caledonia’s AS Magenta clash against Papua New Guinea’s Madang FC.