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Fijians Miss Big Chance As New Caledonians Reach Historic OFC Final

Hienghene toppled defending champions Team Wellington 2-0, while Magenta overcame nine-time champions Auckland City 2-1 at the Stade Numa Daly in Nouméa on Sunday.
01 May 2019 10:32
Fijians Miss Big Chance As New Caledonians Reach Historic OFC Final
Saula Waqa in action for Ba against Hienghene Sports in Kone, New Caledonia, Photo: OFC

Analysis:

Ba football coach Ronil Kumar and his Lautoka counterpart Kamal Swamy are probably having sleepless nights thinking about the OFC Champions League.

Seeing New Caledonian clubs Hienghene Sports and AS Magenta end New Zealand’s two decades of dominance in the region’s top com­petition would have been painful.

Hienghene toppled defending champions Team Wellington 2-0, while Magenta overcame nine-time champions Auckland City 2-1 at the Stade Numa Daly in Nouméa on Sunday.

The two victories are being hailed as the turning point in Oceania football, but that is yet to be seen.

Since its inception in 2007, the new OFC Champions League for­mat has seen only one non-New Zealand winner- Hekari United of Papua New Guinea in 2009/10.

As the region straps in for a his­toric all-New Caledonia final on Sunday, the Fijian teams will be wondering what went wrong.

The competition was there for the taking– and so were the Kiwis – yet a serious challenge never materi­alised with both teams missing a massive opportunity.

Vodafone Ba stumbled at the quarterfinal stage against Hieng­hene despite scoring first through Malakai Rakula and generally hav­ing a tidier game than their oppo­nents in the first half.

The New Caledonians equalised through a Betrand Kai penalty on the cusp of half-time after a silly handball by Kishan Sami, and Ba simply had no response to the set­back. For this, the coaches, includ­ing Shalend Lal, have to cop some blame.

By the time Narendra Rao was red carded in the 82nd minute for a cynical foul, Ba looked tired and be­reft of ideas, eventually conceding early in extra time to lose the tie 2-1.

The Vodafone Lautoka side’s exit in the pool stages was even more disappointing, given their expen­sive signings and ambition to win the competition having lost in the final the previous year.

After beating PNG’s Morobe Wawens 5-0 on day one, the Sugar City side collapsed in the final two matches with a 6-5 loss to Hender­son Eels (Solomons) and a 2-2 draw with AS Central Sport (Tahiti).

The progress of the New Caledo­nians has shown that the New Zea­land teams are not invincible. They can be beaten, given the right train­ing and preparation.

The eight Vodafone Premier League teams vying for the two available spots for next year’s com­petition should keep that in mind.

Winning the OFC Champions League ensures direct qualifica­tion to the FIFA Club World Cup and earns the victorious team US$500,000 (FJ$1.06 million) in prize money.

That is enough reason for the VPL to be considered the most impor­tant competition in Fiji, despite the hype that surrounds the Fiji FACT, Battle of the Giants and the Inter-District Championships.

While Ba and Lautoka have again emerged as favourites to qualify for next year’s championship, teams like Labasa and Suva have the means to challenge them.

How much emphasis they put on the VPL over the three tourna­ments remains to be seen? But the balance of power in club football in Oceania looks to be shifting and it would be remiss of Fijian teams not to capitalise.

Edited by Leone Cabenatabua

Feedback: sheldon.chanel@fijisun.com.fj

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