Woah matey, who saw that one coming? For eight consecutive years and eleven times out of the last twelve the OFC Champions League has been won by a club from Aotearoa, the one exception being Hekari United’s triumph in 2010 and even that was still against Waitakere United in the final. There’s never not been a kiwi side in the final, not since the competition took on its current format thirteen years ago… but that record’s been broken now as both Team Wellington and Auckland City fell at the semi-final stage in Noumea on the weekend and we’ve got an all New Caledonian grand final.
Sometimes it really is a game of inches. Or rather centimetres, if you will. Like when Eric Molloy curled a shot off the inside of the post after barely sixty seconds of action against Heinghene Sport. The ball rolled across the goal and was eventually cleared for a throw in. Similarly Taylor Schrijers completely lashed one at goal after a corner kick and there would have been no stopping it had it been a little to the right… but as it was it was just close enough to keeper Rocky Nyikeine (remember that name because he had a blinder) for him to brilliantly tip it over the crossbar. Not so much inches as metres though when Bill Robertson put a free header over the bar soon after.
A positive start from Team Welly then, who had gone away from their usual back three, probably because they’ve had so many injuries and departures to their backline that they can barely find three defenders at this stage of the season without dragging a midfielder back and when they do that then they run out of midfielders. Obviously Aaron Clapham wasn’t going to be involved after his horrific head injury in the Premiership final. So Andy Bevin, playing his first game in the competition this season (work commitments holding him out previously, as I understand), played in a midfield trio with Alex Palezevic and then Mario Ilich as the more defensive fella. Robertson and Schrijvers at CB with Jack-Henry Sinclair and Eric Molloy on the flanks. Angus Kilkolly up top with Nati Hailermariam and Henry Cameron – HC who has mostly been a wingback this season but has had a few chances to play further forward where he’s more recognised.
However what that meant was Ross Allen, The Guernsey GOAT, was only on the bench despite having scored 11 goals in four games in this competition this season (and one of those appearances he didn’t even start). It also meant that Joel Stevens was on the bench with him. Adam Mitchell too. They had valuable players amongst the substitutes and you never know who’s carrying an injury or whatever but bold moves all the same from Jose Figuiera.
Having gone into the break scoreless, Heinghene came out ready to shock as the great Bertrand Kai swung in an outstanding corner early in the second half, which floated beautifully towards the far post where Scott Basalaj couldn’t get to it and, once Robertson misjudged it, Geordy Gony came leaping in to score the header. Andy Bevin wasn’t able to check the run. Heinghene with the 1-0 lead.
The TeeDubs responded calmly to the setback… a little too calmly perhaps. And it took them twenty minutes to really ramp the pressure up again. It wasn’t until the 73rd minute that Stevens was introduced and Ross Allen didn’t get his number raised until the 80th. Unfortunately Allen wasn’t able to make the best of a couple ones that fell his way. Andy Bevin hit a spinning volley wide. The goal just didn’t come their way and one sloppy mistake at the back allowed Kai to set up Jefferson Dahite right at the end and 2-0 was the final score. Roy Kayara getting one over his former team (alongside his brother too). An even tougher one to take for Team Wellington knowing that they haven’t qualified for next season’s edition.
Then it was Auckland City’s chance to try and do a little better. Up against AS Magenta, a team they’d beaten 2-1 in the group stages, they didn’t hold a single thing back with their starting team as all the usuals were out there. The only change from the XI that began both the Premiership semi-final and the OFC CL quarter-final was that Micah Lea’alafa was back out there with Maro Bonsu-Maro back on the bench. Zubikarai. Vale, Berlanda, TAHW, Morgan. Riera, Howieson, Tavano. Browne, Lea’alafa, Manickum.
Magenta were pretty solid defensively, knowing full well what they were up against, and they proved tricky to break down. Still, there were a few little moments that predicted a breakthrough, basically all of them involving Lea’alafa or David Browne. That breakthrough finally came after forty minutes when Lea’alafa skipped through a few defenders to score and there you go. It felt a little inevitable by that stage. City might have struggled for space but Angel Berlanga and Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi were looking comfortable enough at the back.
Until the incident happened.
Nothing much going on, ACFC just knocking it around, and Berlanga played a simple backpass to Enaut Zubikarai. Super Zubi had stepped out of his box to be an option and was under no pressure at all. This is where he took his first touch…
This is only three minutes after the goal, by the way. All that work to get in front and then this happens. So Zubi looks up for a simple pass out to a centre-back but TAHW hasn’t gotten wide enough to create the angle and has been closed down by the Magenta press. So he looks the other way only to see that Berlanga is also covered. One thing for it then: pump that sucker long.
But he hesitates. Then he slips. Then, with Mickael Tiaou about to skip around him and shoot into an open net… he loses his head for a second and grabs the ball with his hands. There was a long chat between the ref and lino as ACFC players tried to down play the whole thing but there was honestly only one possible decision.
A red card for Zubikarai and Dylan Manickum was promptly subbed off for sub keeper Ruben Parker to have a crack. No time to warm up, straight out there to face the free kick. Aaaand Kevin Nemia smashed it straight at him and he slapped it into the left-side of his goal. Couldn’t quite adjust in time and you do have to be sympathetic to a reserve keeper coming in in that situation but that’s one he’d have expected to save ordinarily. Suddenly we’re back on level terms.
That one changed the course of this game. Manickum had been kinda ineffective as a false nine type, they needed more of a presence up top and centre forward had been their main weakness all season. Bonsu-Maro was introduced with twenty to play but even then he’s another mobile striker. Also that was a little late to make that change. Whatever. Even with ten men it was ACFC who made most of the running yet the man down meant they were always a little vulnerable at the back, contributing to a frantic second half as Magenta began to believe that not only could they withstand the pressure but they might even be able to win it themselves.
Which they did. Barely a minute after David Browne chose to take a touch instead of shooting first time after Cam Howieson had chipped a lovely ball over the top for him, Jordan Vale missed a cross and let Jean Christ Wajoka, the captain of ASM, pick up the ball with all sorts of space in the penalty area. He wasn’t able to get a shot across under desperate pressure from Vale and TAHW so he slid the ball over to Kevin Maitran who tapped it home and we were on the brink of a major day of upsets. Fabrizio Tavano did manage to hit the crossbar at the end there but nah, what do you know. Auckland City eliminated at the semi-final stage for the second year in a row and there’ll be no kiwi side in the Club World Cup in 2019… if that competition even exists by the end of the year.
At least that makes it easier for the folks who do the Premiership scheduling. It’d be nice if they could condense all those half gameweeks at the end of the season too. Keep the mud teams from losing all momentum and giving up. But yeah, two New Caledonian teams in the grand final of the Champions League. Incredible for that country… except what the hell happened to the kiwi sides?
A little context here. Both games were played back to back at Stade Numa Daly in Noumea. So the undefeated Team Wellington and Auckland City, who each qualified top from their group, ended up effectively playing away games in the semis… which this year were single-legged instead of the two legs which allowed Team Welly to knock ACFC out on away goals in 2018. The hosts of the semis were decided by the luck of the draw and when two clubs from New Caledonia ended up as those hosts, the relevant parties determined that a double header was the best way to do it… probably to save some cash. Which you’d assume was also why they only played one leg knockout ties this season. Even though that doesn’t exactly seem competitively fair.
Honestly, that’s not an excuse for TW or ACFC. They both played well within their capabilities and can only really blame their performances on the day. But it’s bloody weird that these games weren’t played at neutral venues (neutral venue = small crowds = quite expensive tho). Or at least keep it over two legs where the home and away thing levels out. Team Wellington would have had their work cut out overcoming a 2-0 deficit but City, with the away goal, would have been huge favourites to advance with a home second leg at Kiwitea Street.
And the other thing is that City had only played two competitive games in six weeks. The Premmy semi that they lost to Team Wellington and then a 4-0 win against Toti City in the quarters of this competition. Team Wellington had the Premmy grand final to add to that so a third game in six weeks… but still not ideal preparation at the end of their season when they were playing a couple teams only three games into the start of their own domestic campaigns Kinda feels like the kiwi sides had the deck stacked against them here but then the OFC sides probably feel that way about the kiwi sides every other year. So it goes.
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