Auckland City FC confirmed themselves as the winners of Group C in the OFC Champions League and booked a home quarterfinal with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over ten-man Lautoka FC at Trusts Stadium on Saturday.
The defending champions will now host Papua New Guinea’s Lae City Dwellers or one of the Solomon Islands duo of Solomon Warriors or Marist when the draw for the April 7-8 quarterfinals is made on Monday at OFC headquarters.
As group runners up, Lautoka will travel to Papeete, Port Vila or Wellington to face AS Dragon, Nalkutan or Team Wellington – the winners of the other three groups.
Meanwhile in a battle between Group C’s two previously winless teams, Tahiti’s AS Venus edged Madang FC from Papua New Guinea 2-1 to finish the tournament on a relative high note.
It took Auckland City until the 70th minute to break down a well-organised Lautoka defence with Emiliano Tade finally breaking the deadlock from a Daniel Morgan cross.
It was a stark contrast to lop-sided wins in their first two matches with Fijian champions Lautoka offering a sterner test, even after going down to ten men a few minutes before halftime when Arami Manumanubai lashed out at Darren White in an off-the-ball incident.
Auckland City coach Ramon Tribulietx was pleased to secure a home quarterfinal and said he expected the match to be as tough as it was, especially after an intense week.
“Lautoka are a good team. They dropped off and parked the bus so that’s always going to make life difficult and they’ve got players that can hurt you on the counter,” Tribulietx said.
“For us it was a matter for keeping dominating with patience, not getting frustrated and just wait to see if we could score one. When we got the goal, and even when they got the player sent off, things changed.”
Lautoka coach Kamal Swamy had to balance the desire to win the match with concerns about a number of players sitting one caution away from missing the quarterfinal but took heart from the way the players he brought in responded.
“Auckland are the defending champions and had the home advantage and of course we missed five key players in the starting line-up because of the yellow cards and the reserves played very well,” said Swamy.
Swamy said that despite the defeat, the promising performance gives them some hope looking ahead to the last eight of the competition.
“Of course yes we are positive about it and we know we have a good side and with these reserve players performing now we have known that we have equally good players on the bench.”
In the early kick off, Venus drew first blood through a 12th minute goal from captain Teaonui Tehau who wrong-footed goalkeeper Charles Lepani before passing the ball into an empty net.
Neil Samuga Hans drew Madang level from the spot in the 29th minute but Tehau struck again in second half injury time to give Venus coach Sam Garcia something to smile about.
“I’m happy today and I’m proud of the players for this game and during the whole tournament.
“It’s a young team and we came here to improve and to represent Tahiti football well.
“I think we have progressed. We haven’t qualified but we leave a better a team.”
Madang coach Maurie Wasi was naturally disappointed to leave without any points despite some promising performances, at time with a skeleton squad. He hopes his side can get another bite at the OFC Champions League in the future.
“We are good enough to go back and qualify again for next year but we need to fix a lot of thing at the club and organise things professionally. We’ll try to get back next year with a strong enough squad and good preparation to really try to have a go at it.”