(Photo Credit: OFC Media via Phototek)
A valiant AS Pirae are through to the semi-finals at OFC Champions League 2023 in Port Vila, Vanuatu.
The Tahitian champions have qualified in top spot from Group B after a 2-1 win over Papua New Guinea’s Hekari United and will play Suva FC in one semi-final on Wednesday.
With only three outfield substitutes across their three pool matches AS Pirae showed great spirit to make the playoffs.
Today’s crunch match was played in greasy conditions after heavy overnight rain. Despite the footing issues both sides attacked with vigour and plenty of pace but it was AS Pirae which gradually gained the upper hand.
They were rewarded for their endeavour on the stroke of halftime when Taumihau Tiatia crossed to fast-following fellow defender Etienne Tave to head home for a 1-0 lead.
That solitary goal aside, the highlight of the first spell was an attacking blitz by the Tahitian team midway through the half.
Tiatia pushed forward and crossed behind him, with Hekari captain Daniel Joe almost chipping his attempt at a block into his own goal. From the ensuing corner Hekari goalkeeper Dave Tomare flew full length to his left to parry a superb curling shot from Tehotu Gitton. A smart move from that ensuing corner saw Godfrey Haro called on to header a goal-bound shot off the line.
The two lowlights of the first stanza were when key Hekari attacker Ati Kepo received his second yellow card of the tournament and when classy keeper Tomare had to leave the field after a major collision with eventual Player of the Match, Tave.
Hekari United started the second half with a rush and created a lifeline on 55 minutes when they were awarded a penalty, duly converted by skipper Daniel Joe.
But the equaliser was cancelled out just eight minutes later when Johann Tihoni scored his second goal in three games.
AS Pirae had a nervous moment in the 64th minute when goalkeeper Francois Decoret lost the ball, but Tiatia saved his blushes by sliding in to deflect a shot from an acute angle by the impressive Hekari midfielder Yagi Yasasa.
AS Pirae’s Ariiura Labaste shaved the crossbar and hit the woodwork – as did Heimano Bourebare – but no other goals were forthcoming.
Hekari had two final chances in extra time to force a draw but Yasasa’s free kick and a long-range speculator from Joseph Joe were both blasted narrowly over the bar.
A second yellow card for the tournament means Labaste will miss Wednesday’s semi-final. They will also sweat on the fitness of Johann Tihoni, who was stretched off at the start of extra time.
With no reinforcements able to arrive from Tahiti in time it could be that AS Pirae will only have one outfielder and a goalkeeper on the substitutes bench for the crunch semi-final.
But, for now, they will celebrate a brave win and a table-topping Group B campaign.
AS Pirae: 2 (Etienne TAVE 45+1’, Yohann TIHONI 63’)
Hekari United: 1 (Daniel JOE (P) 55’)