It was a thriller from start to finish as 2013 semi-finalists Amicale FC took on defending champions Auckland City FC in a match that would decide the Group B winners.
Within the first minute a rare misplaced pass from captain Ivan Vicelich seemed to mark how the evening would play out as Amicale took possession. As with many of the group stage games, possession bounced from side-to-side as both teams tried to find that something special which would edge them ahead.
Emiliano Tade and Takuya Iwata were looking most dangerous up front for Auckland City, but an outstanding performance from Amicale glove-man Chickau Mansale denied them glory.
Mansale’s opposite Tamati Williams was equally active at the other end as a dangerous trio of Nikola Vasilic, Francois Sakama and Dominique Fred peppered efforts both on and off target.
After a number of close efforts denied Amicale’s strike force as the half neared a close the Vanuatu club finally got a break. As the ball bobbled around in the box Visilic hooked it back into the six-yard box from the goal-line sending it over Williams for an arriving Fred to head down into the back of the net.
Well aware of the stakes, Auckland City returned with a renewed sense of intensity but with it came a level of frustration. Hussle in the back denied Amicale from extending their lead, but up front the New Zealanders really struggled to get past the defensive team led nobly by captain Nelson Sale, with Scottish international Colin Marshall, Serbian Marko Dodevic and Davide Talone all pulling more than their weight.
For Auckland City the pressure up front was heaped on by Iwata out wide and Tade through the centre with shots flying in but Mansale seeming to be all over the box and always in the right place at the right time.
With the time slipping away, everything was being thrown forward including keeper Williams as Auckland worked at nicking an all-important equaliser. The tactic almost cost them a greater margin as Fred booted long from the half-way mark with Williams still racing back but his effort was well-wide and the final whistle finally blew seconds later to send Amicale clean through to the semi-finals with the full nine points.
Ecstatic to see his side through to the semi-finals on his debut in the premier regional club competition was Amicale coach Nathan Hall.
“It was a gutsy match, the boys gave it everything they’ve got. As you can see they’ve got no energy left in their tank.
“I’m really proud, really happy and delighted that we can play a home semi in Vanuatu.”
Already looking ahead to those encounters, Hall says he has the commitment of his players to see the competition through to the end.
“They’re committed to the team until the end of the campaign and I think we’ve got as good a chance of any of the teams of winning this. We’ve got no injuries, we’ve got a good team spirit, we’ve just got to keep working and maintain our high standards.”
Auckland City coach Ramon Tribulietx says he never expected an easy run and extended congratulations to Amicale for their performance.
“It was a very competitive match and I think we dominated the first half. Unfortunately we conceded a very late goal, which may be the product of tiredness, maybe a little bit of frustration and lack of concentration in there which is normal,” he says.
“It’s the third game we’ve played, they’re a very good rival. What can we do? I think the game’s been very competitive and it’s gone their way and we have to congratulate them.”
Still in with a chance depending on the results of the final Match Day today, Tribulietx has fingers crossed it will finish favourably for his side.
“Obviously we are hoping for that result that goes our way. Unfortunately we haven’t done the business today for ourselves, and we have to depend on others now.
“We’re disappointed with that and only time will tell.”
Earlier in the afternoon the effects of the heat at 1pm combined with it being the third of three matches during this competition saw a lethargic start for both Nadi and Dragon as they each sought their first win.
Dragon were the first to make inroads as Sylvain Graglia sent the first of what would be many attempts straight at Nadi keeper Vereti Dickson. Nadi were next on goal as Shafim Buksh broke, but efforts from him and teammates Rusiate Matarerega and Napolioni Qasevakatini were denied by Tahiti national goalkeeper Mikael Roche.
The best chances were certainly falling on Dragon’s favour but Nadi’s defence, at one point eight players were in the 18-yard box, continued to put up walls to prevent the Tahitians from finding the advantage they sought.
Their chance finally came in the 33rd minute when Alvin Tehau blasted a shot which hit a diving Dickson before bouncing over the line. The continued pressure from Dragon was interspersed with a couple of decent breaks from Nadi’s strikers but neither side could convert before the break.
Dragon’s first 2014 Champions League goal was only a sign of things to come in the second half as they upped the pressure to prove they are deserving of their place in the competition.
A rain of goals was kicked off in the 62nd minute as Teaonui Tehau whipped around a diving Dickson and slotting into an open net. Eight minutes later a tiny but effective touch from Alvin Tehau set Steevy Chong Hue up to drive low for Dragon’s third. The fourth came off a tidy chip over the defence allowing Jacques Tetauira to send in behind the keeper.
Alvin Tehau came down in the box in the 83rd minute and referee Matt Conger wasted no time in pointing to the spot, with Yannick Vero tasked with sending into the net – which he did with ease.
Only moments later it was Chong Hue who was bustled over, and with another penalty awarded he lined up to send himself. His effort came back off the upright and he sent the rebound flying into Dickson for a Dragon corner. Nothing came of it and within a few moments the final whistle was sounding to mark Dragon’s first win, a comprehensive one too, of the competition.
Finishing with a win in the final match was pleasing for AS Dragon coach Ludovic Graugnard, but it came on the end of a disappointing campaign.
“The important thing is to finish well and to leave Fiji on a high. Everyone had a go at scoring goals and we finished on a positive note. Unfortunately we fell in a complicated pool and played three matches at 1pm in incredibly hot conditions,” he says.
“We didn’t have what it took in the first two matches but we did our best which was witnessed today. We need to win the championship back home in order to return next year – it’s the second appearance for AS Dragon, and this year we had certain ambitions after we came so close last year.”
After a 15 year absence, Nadi’s return to the OFC Champions League was far from memorable, but coach Kamal Swamy says there are positives they can take from the experience.
“I think the boys enjoyed and I think they now know what they need to do to compete in this competition. I think in the future they will be much more focused so they can perform,” he says.
He adds that if they can qualify for 2015 he’ll make a few changes to his approach.
“We lacked experience and most of the teams are bringing in overseas players, experienced players. So if the association wants to compete in the Champions League we need experienced players. As you know Rome was not built in one day and so we can only improve in this competition.”
The group stage of the OFC Champions League concludes today with the final round of Group A matches. Kiwi FC and Solomon Warriors get proceedings underway at 1pm(local) with both sides keen for an opening win.
The action will close with AS Pirae taking on Waitakere United at 4pm (local), with the result determining the winner of the group, as well as having a strong influence over which second placed side will join the top three in the semi-finals.