The side were assured their spot even before they kicked off against the Papua New Guinea champions, as AS Magenta found the form they’d been lacking previously to beat Tafea FC 3-1 in the Match Day 7 opener and destroy any hopes of a challenge for the top spot from the Vanuatu side.
In the opener, AS Magenta were straight off the mark as they looked to redeem their two previous performances, which were average at best.
Having made no less than six changes to their MD4 starting line-up, Magenta were a side with a purpose as they moved the ball confidently around the field.
The shots fired in at both ends, but Magenta looked much more confident and assured on the ball as they made inroads towards the goal. After a number of decent chances were blocked away from the target by Tafea keeper Seloni Iaruel, it took a little magic from 2012 OFC Player of the Year Bertrand Kai to break the deadlock.
With a charge on goal Kai beat his man and, as Iaruel dove in at his feet, he played off to an arriving Bill Nicholls who found the net on his Champions League debut.
Just before the break it was Kai taking the glory as, with only Iaruel to beat, the dreaded striker calmly shot between the young goalkeeper and his post to give his side a two goal lead.
Not a side to give up lightly, Tafea pulled back one of their own after a player took a tumble in the box to earn a penalty. Bong Kalo stepped up and sent it flying past Ixoee.
Neither side dropped the intensity throughout the remainder of the half, but it was the New Caledonians who added to their advantage when substitute Kalajie Gnipate went around his marker before firing home his third.
Returning home not only with a win, but following a great performance AS Magenta coach Alain Moizan had mixed feelings about his side and their overall performance.
“You could say that we ramped up the pressure and got the result we wanted. To finish with victory and not a draw is exactly what we asked of our players, as well as to finish at the least, second in the group” he says.
“I think today we portrayed a certain valour, a certain quality of footballers that we hadn’t seen before today.”
Kai joined proceedings for Magenta’s second and third matches and his quality certainly made a difference, but Moizan doesn’t think it would have changed the standings if he’d been present from the beginning.
“Unfortunately I don’t believe it would have made a difference because football is played on the field and in the first two matches we weren’t focused. We asked the players to do the job as they do in the championship, and they had no reason not to.
“We asked Bertrand to help us because we know he has the potential in his generosity and his technical qualities to make a difference. He showed, like in 2012 when he was named the best player in the Pacific, that he remains a very good player.”
A disappointed Moise Poida says he’s not happy with the performance or the loss after pinning hopes on a final victory to round out the group stage.
“The first half didn’t go our way and I had to adapt the side by taking off one of the players and fitting in another one,” he explains.
He also believes that youth and inexperience at the top level were a contributing factor to the end results for his side.
“They were not prepared mentally. Even though they have skills and have quality – technically they are good but mentally they are still weak. They are too far from this tournament, but that’s football.
“Maybe if we can come back next year with the experience we’ve gained here mentally we’ll be able to put a stronger challenge.”
Knowing they’d already safely qualified, Ba coach Yogendra Dutt sent a much-changed starting line-up out to face Hekari United. The Papua New Guinea side were hoping to snatch a redeeming victory to take home to fans after a disappointing campaign.
Ba’s target-man Osea Vakatalesau was looking dangerous from the word go as he looked to muscle his way on goal. Applying pressure to keeper Godfrey Baniau, he came close to nicking one on a few occasions and was unlucky.
Hekari, for their part, were applying an equal amount of pressure at the other end, keeping the defenders on the back foot as they continued to make driving runs towards the box in search of an opener.
They finally had that much sought after lead when Tutizamo Tanito smashed on the volley to open the scoring.
Assured of their spot they may have been, but a proud Ba were not content to be losing on their own park, in front of home fans. After much switching of possession through the centre and plenty of off-target opportunities squandered from both sides, Ba had a chance to equalise after Vakatalesau was brought down in the penalty area.
After a penalty miss in their opener against AS Magenta the opportunity for Vaketalesau to convert was passed over and instead it was Avinesh Suwamy who stepped behind the ball. Cool as ever the experience defender slotted inside the post to bring his side in line.
Hekari kept up their efforts on attack but the Ba defensive line proved too good for even their experienced strike force and the match rounded out with the two sides locked at 1-1.
Pleased to have qualified for the semi-finals ahead of kick-off, Ba coach Yogendra Dutt says he wanted his side to enjoy the final group stage match in front of a decent home crowd.
“We are proud of how they went up in the second half especially,” he says.
And having rested a number of the players who helped them through the first two matches, Dutt was pleased with how the reserves performed.
“We rested all the players who had yellow cards, as well as those who have picked up little injuries. We have a larger squad and we tried to put in people to see how they perform in this upper level of competition, and we are proud of how they did today.
Counterpart Jerry Sam was unhappy his side couldn’t hold onto the lead to take three points home.
“I’m proud of the boys, they fought hard today. We tried to get a result but that’s football. You can’t have it all your way,” he says.
“We scored early and settled down but a bit of pressure coming and this let us down.”
Looking ahead to the semi-finals, Sam says Ba will do well.
“I really believe in this Ba side, I know a lot of the boys very well – Osea and the other boys – I think if they just do their game, play the way they play, they’ll make it to the grand final.”
The final OFC Champions League Group B matches will be played today with Nadi FC taking on AS Dragon at 1pm – with both sides looking to take a first victory – before the top of the standings clash between Amicale FC and Auckland City FC follows at 4pm.