(Photo Credit: OFC Media via Phototek)

Auckland City have completed a remarkable fightback to beat Ifira Black Bird 5-4 on penalties at Freshwater Stadium in Port Vila and make Saturday’s final of the OFC Champions League 2023.

Down 2-0 two thirds of the way through the roller-coaster match, the 10-time champions were just three minutes away from being on the receiving end of one of the all-time upsets before locking  up the scores at 2-all.

The remarkable match was an absolute thriller – one that will be remembered for many years. And it was a shame there had to be a winner as the outstanding Thomas Napakaurana missed with the very final penalty kick.

The Ifira underdogs showed plenty of bite and tremendous heart to play the final 16 minutes of regulation time and the half hour of extra time with ten men, holding on to send the match to penalties.

The first twenty minutes – indeed, the whole match – was a contrast in styles between Auckland City’s possession-based approach and Ifira’s flair on the counter-attack. The Kiwi team’s measured build-ups were often matched by dangerous Black Bird break-outs.

City defender Michael Den Heijer was forced into two important clean up jobs as Ifira grew in confidence and displayed superb first touches and ball control.

The local team had two shots on goal to City’s none in the first 25 minutes, with outstanding midfielder Jordy Tasip, despite being surrounded by blue jerseys, letting loose with a sizzling shot that scorched wide.

The first goal was a belter and came from yet another Ifira break-out. An acrobatic clearance by Thomas Napakaurana in the Ifira box led to rapid ball movement up the right hand touchline and the cross found Kerry Iawak who smashed a superb shot past goalkeeper Conor Tracey into the left hand side of the goal.

The crowd, full of hope, became full of belief.

The second half started as the first had panned out – fluid, fast-paced and action-packed.

Ifira had no desire to play the ball through the midfield, sticking to the game plan of sending possession wide to rampaging wings as team mates swarmed up the middle towards the goalmouth, eager to accept crosses.

Black Bird coach Jean Robert Yelou didn’t want his team to run themselves into exhaustion too early, but – buoyed by a huge and feverish weekday crowd – Ifira committed plenty of players forward and pressed with passion throughout the match.

Their second reward emerged in the 60th minute following a yellow card to Den Heijer. The resulting Black Bird free kick wafted to the back post where Godine Tenene managed to head a floater across the line.

Two substitutions changed the complexion of the game as Tong Zhou and Ryan De Vries provided more spark to the Auckland City attack, with De Vries getting a touch on a corner in the 68th minute to reduce the deficit by one.

Drama followed six minutes later when Ifira defender Timothy Boulet received a second yellow card and left the field, leaving 10 team mates to try and defend their one-goal advantage.

Plenty of Auckland City half chances weren’t converted as giant goalkeeper Andreas Duch made multiple crucial saves as every block, every clearance and every break-out was greeted with delight.

But the equaliser finally came in the fifth minute of added time as De Vries latched onto a loose ball in the penalty box and slotted home – stunning the spectators into silence.

Two 15-minute periods of extra time followed, initially in front of a hushed audience that feared their team had fired all their shots and had no more ammunition in the arsenal.

Auckland City had the best chances in the first spell of extra time as Joe Lee’s close range effort was blocked by a despairing slide from Ifira skipper Samuel Koloros and a thunderbolt from replacement midfielder Tong Zhou struck the crossbar.

Ifira were on weary legs in the final stanza and fended off several likely chances, including three goal-bound attempts in the space of five seconds! 

Auckland City were millimetres away from the win in the final moments of the match, but Koloros sensationally cleared off the line, leading to the dreaded penalties where cool heads, and the trailing leg of Conor Tracey prevailed.

Auckland City: 2 (5) (Ryan DE VRIES 68’, 90 + 5’)
Ifira Black Bird: 2 (4) (Kerry IAWAK 39’, Godine TENENE 60’) 

HT: 1-0 Ifira