Photo Credit: OFC Media via Phototek

AS Pirae will be boosted by the addition of international midfielder Tamatoa Tetauira for tomorrow’s crunch OFC Champions League 2023 semi-final against Suva FC in Vanuatu.

The Tahitian champions were hoping to bring in three players to bolster their under-manned squad of 15, which was reduced by one with the one-match suspension of attacking midfielder Ariiura Labaste for a second yellow card in three group matches.

Unfortunately the only flight that could enable personnel to reach Port Vila in time was full and they only had space for one of the trio to travel.

“We asked if the pilot would like two assistants,” team spokesperson Charles Ariiotina joked. “But it wasn’t to be.”

As it is, Tetauira – who has won 11 caps for Tahiti – will only land at 2.25pm local time, meaning it will be quite a scramble to make the 3.00pm local time kick-off.

AS Pirae will meet a fired-up Suva FC who – according to charismatic Suva coach Maxwell Thaggard – are banking on making Saturday’s final.

“I told our players before we arrived to ‘start believing in yourself’,” Thaggard said. “Start believing we’re going to play the final.

“It’s an exciting time to reach this far – good for Fijian football as a whole. We lost our dominance in the south Pacific, now we are back on track. It’s a good time for us.”

Thaggard said his team has struggled in shifting from the island of Santo to the bustling Port Vila, with five players needing fluids today to cope with stomach troubles. But his medical staff have promised him they’ll be fine for tomorrow.

“My team’s been ready for this campaign for the last three years we’ve been together,” he said. “We had one player who left the system but Alex Saniel has come back and he’s brought new life to our game. He’s provided some exciting passing – some critical, killer passes – and we’ve scored goals through his assists.”

Haggard has been impressed with AS Pirae and said they are strong in many areas.

“But it’s about our game and getting our geometrics right on the day. With any game of football, the bounce of the ball will decide the game.”

In tomorrow’s earlier contest – at 11.30am local time – 10-time champions Auckland City FC tackles Champions League newcomer Ifira Black Bird, the local Vanuatu hope.

Auckland City coach Albert Riera says his team is up for the challenge of playing in front of the passionate local crowd.

“I’ve been told it will potentially be five thousand people so it’s a massive game,” Riera said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be hostile or not but I know it’s a game everyone wants to be involved in.”

In such an atmosphere Riera says it’s important to stay composed. 

“We always talk about playing the game with your head but winning with your heart. This team has done that before. You have to play your way but adapt to the conditions you’re playing in and our players do that very well.”

Auckland City is keen to play clever and adapt to whatever conditions are presented. The pitch will be slippery after heavy rain over the past few days.

“The ball speed is quicker on grass than on turf, but it also depends on the state of the ground,” Riera said. “We always say the ball never gets tired, so we will try to dominate the game with the ball, maintain possession, make incisive passes and create chances.

“We rate our fitness and we’ve seen over the last few games the other teams are getting tired, the game is opening up and it’s easier to create chances, so we will try to do that again. It’s no secret to anyone – it’s the way we play, we’re just striving to get better at it.”

Ifira Black Bird coach Jean Robert Yelou said his team is keen to challenge Auckland City for the full 90 minutes, but they won’t be chasing the ball all over the field.

“I want our players to win back the ball but I don’t want our boys to run too much because they’ll get tired and after that Auckland City will start to come into our area boldly,” Yelou said.

The 39-year-old, who earned 19 caps for Vanuatu over a decade, has played and coached against Auckland City and promises his team will be give everything to win as “every game in the last week has been a final for us”.

His big issue will be scoring goals as Ifira had few shots on target during their three group games and managed only three goals.

“That’s the problem we’ve got,” Yelou said, “putting the ball in the net. But football is like that. Sometimes you get one chance, you can score and that’s enough.”

Riera won’t be taking the locals lightly.

“They are in the semi-finals on merit,” he said. “They play very good football. They try to play football in the thirds (rather than playing balls). 

“I’m very glad these guys are trying to play good football and they are achieving. I think it’s going to be two teams trying to control the ball and dictate the tempo so it’s going to be an interesting battle.”

With a final as the key goal…and a title as the ultimate prize.