(Photo Credit: OFC Media via Phototek)
Auckland City FC have survived a ferocious grand final fightback to beat Suva FC 4-2 in extra time at Freshwater Stadium in Port Vila and successfully defend their OFC Champions League title.
Up 2-0 at halftime, Auckland City battled a rampant opposition, extreme heat, the loss of key midfielder Gerard Garriga and a Fijian-friendly home crowd to claim their 11th title and will now represent the Oceania region at the 2023 FIFA Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia this December.
Auckland City also won the card contest – conceding five yellow cards, including a double-yellow that turned red (60th minute) to Suva FC’s four yellows, including a double that became red, 10 minutes in extra time.
The first stanza never signalled the drama that was to unfold. It was essentially one-way traffic in the first 45 minutes and Suva FC weren’t in the driver’s seat.
Auckland City started strongly and Joe Lee led several promising surges down the right hand side as Angus Kilkolly miscued one shot and also fired wide, in-between defender Adam Mitchell heading off the bar as he was shouldered off the ball from a corner.
Fiji’s starting formation was rocked after 15 minutes when skipper Samuela Drudru was sidelined for treatment after being accidentally clipped by Auckland City defender Michael Den Heijer. He returned to the field three minutes later, though Suva were then to lose Simione Nabenu to a leg injury from hustling back in defence and the defender ended up being stretchered from the field.
That allowed for an impromptu drinks break in the 26 degree heat as Auckland City regrouped to continue their early advantage in possession and shots on goal.
The first goal materialised in the 34th minute when Auckland City’s Nathan Lobo zipped into the box and Ravnesh Karan Sing stretched out an unnecessary leg, tripping the 20-year-old left back as Solomon Islands referee David Yareboinen immediately pointed to the penalty spot.
Kilkolly stepped up and calmly slotted the penalty along the carpet straight down the middle to make it 1-0.
Suva FC was forced into their second change of the half when key attacker Drudru went off in the 36th minute, handing the captain’s armband to goalkeeper Akuila Mateisuva.
The New Zealand champions doubled their advantage in the second minute of first-half additional time, when super sub Ryan De Vries – who had replaced an injured Dylan Manickum just eight minutes earlier – shrugged off a defender and spectacularly struck a left-footer on the run past a helpless Mateisuva.
The 2-0 halftime lead was a valuable buffer as Suva FC started the second half attacking with venom and the crowd was motivated into chanting “Go Suva Go” before Dave Radrigai broke and, after a lengthy run, was brought down by City midfielder Gerard Garriga.
That yellow became crucial just nine minutes later when Garriga, turning 30 tomorrow, received an unwanted early present when he was brandished a second yellow card when it appeared Lobo should’ve been the recipient. After much debate the card stood and Auckland City was down to 10 men for the last half hour of regulation time.
Suva FC’s hopes were lifted even further six minutes later when Port Vila native Alex Saniel bolted between defenders and confidently headed home to the delight of his friends, family and onlookers alike, 2-1.
Kilkolly had a golden chance to restore the two-goal advantage in the 76th minute but, despite being in space and having time, he shot over the bar. Impressive goalkeeper Mateisuva, the tournament Golden Glove award winner, was also called on to make vital saves.
Battling fatigue in the heat with a man down, Auckland City conceded again in the 84th minute when a wicked deflection off Mitchell from a shot by Solomon Islands international Marlon Tahioa ballooned over goalkeeper Conor Tracey and in off the underside of the crossbar.
The extra seven minutes of added time were tense, but neither side could break the deadlock, leading to two 15 minute periods of extra time.
It was Auckland City captain – and player of the tournament – Cam Howieson, playing in his 160th match for the club, who scored his 34th – and potentially most important – goal in the 18th minute of extra time to take the fizz out of the crowd .
One scare from a corner in the dying stages gave way to joy for Auckland City when De Vries – the tournament’s Golden Boot winner – scored a second goal to lead the Kiwi team to their record-extending 11th title.
Auckland City: 4 (Angus KILKOLLY 34’, Ryan DE VRIES 45’ + 2 and 120′, Cam HOWIESON 108′)
Suva FC: 2 (Alex SANIEL 66’, Marlon TAHIOA 84’)