Auckland City FC and Lautoka FC are through to the OFC Champions League quarterfinals after confirming themselves as the top two in Group C with a match day to spare although Lautoka needed a dramatic stoppage-time winner to book their ticket on Wednesday at Auckland’s Trusts Arena.
Auckland were too good for Madang beating the Papua New Guinea side 5-0, while Samuela Drudru was the hero for Lautoka, scoring two second half goals including a 92nd minute winner to beat AS Venus 2-1 and send his side to the playoff stage.
With two wins from two matches apiece, the pair’s clash on Saturday will now determine who finishes top of the group and earns home advantage in the quarterfinals in early April.
AS Venus were desperate to take the quarterfinal race to the final day and looked on course to do so when Roonui Tehau scored with an excellent glancing header in just the fourth minute.
But as the game wore on, the pressure from Lautoka mounted and Drudru shook off a pair of previous misses to level the scores just after the hour mark.
Venus sat deep for most of the second half but rolled the dice in the dying stages and were pushing for a late winner themselves when Lautoka caught them on the counter-attack and Benjamin Totori drew goalkeeper Beniamino Mateinaqara and laid off for Drudru to seal the comeback victory.
Lautoka coach Kamal Swamy said he never gave up hope that the goals would come despite falling behind in the first half.
“In the first half we created a lot of chances and were able to break their defence and we were positive about that and that’s what kept our players going,” Swamy said.
He said he was proud to represent Fiji in the last eight of the competition, but their attention would quickly turn to trying to claim an upset over a rampant Auckland City.
“Yes, one of the teams from Fiji has qualified for the quarter finals which is a positive sign and now we will watch and see how we will play against Auckland City.”
AS Venus coach Sam Garcia was left heartbroken at the result which ends their chances of progression.
“It’s a deceptive result today. It’s not the same as the first defeat,” Garcia said.
“We were good in the first half. But we sat back in the second half and that’s why we conceded the equaliser and the goal at the end. I just want to congratulate my players and to encourage them to continue to work hard. It’s a young team and I’m proud of them.
“We’re a little sad because we had a chance to move closer to the quarterfinals against Lautoka. Both teams had the opportunity to win today but in the end we conceded a late goal and our qualification hopes are finished.”
Auckland City’s victory was far more comfortable against a positive but ultimately outgunned Madang and it could’ve been an even greater margin for the Group C hosts but for some wayward finishing, some desperate Madang defending and a string of fine saves from Charles Lepani in goal for the Papua New Guinea club.
Goals to Daniel Morgan and Callum McCowatt had the defending champions two in front after in just 17 minutes and the Navy Blues were in cruise control from then on until putting the foot down toward the end of the second half with an Emiliano Tade double and a stoppage time goal to substitute Dalton Wilkins.
Auckland coach Ramon Tribulietx was satisfied with another large victory that sees his side just needing a draw against Lautoka to secure top spot in the group.
“We take it game-by-game and we understood some of the matches against the Island teams become difficult because they are very aggressive. Madang are very quick and they really pressed us very aggressively for long periods,” Tribulietx said.
“The game saw a little bit more of transition in the later stages because the players got tired but we’re really happy with the result and to get the job done.”
Madang coach Maurie Wasi was once again pleased with the application of his side and while disappointed to be out of the quarterfinal reckoning he was happy his side went out swinging.
“When we came out to play this game we said we will go and have a go. I said to the boys if we have to lose to them we might as well try to play some football and put them in under pressure and we used our front players to create some chances.
“Many teams that play against Auckland City perhaps show them too much respect. We wanted to be positive but at the end their quality showed.”
Madang and AS Venus will get the opportunity to finish their 2018 OFC Champions League campaigns on a high note when the two sides meet on match day 3 on Saturday at 1pm while the Group C decider between Auckland City and Lautoka kicks off at 4pm.