Two clubs making their OFC Champions League bow meet two of the competition’s more establish competitors when Group B gets underway at Stade Yoshida in Koné, New Caledonia on Sunday evening.
Cook Islands champions Puaikura and host club Hienghène Sport are making their group stage debuts but respective opponents Team Wellington and Ba can boast far stronger associations with the competition.
Puaikura carved out a piece of club history when they won the OFC Champions League Qualifier in Tonga last month after falling at that stage in 2014-15.
The club, who will be guided by former New Zealand coach Kevin Fallon, now face an almighty step up when they face a Team Wellington side whose own Champions League frustrations are linked to defeats in the previous two finals.
But Puaikura player/assistant coach Anthony Samuela says the team are excited about pitting themselves against one of the competition’s heavy hitters.
“For me, what I see from the boys they are ready for the game and really looking forward to it,” Samuela said
“We’re hoping in this tournament we can continue to make progress and take that into the next one. But we’ll see how we go in this one and how we can keep improving.”
Team Wellington coach José Figueira will not allow his side to take anything for granted against a side he says have nothing to lose.
“It’s the first time that club have reached this stage and they’ll have a group of players very proud and very motivated to go out there and leave everything on the pitch.
“If we’re not focussed or certainly not matching them on those elements we could be finding ourselves uncomfortable.”
Like Team Wellington, Fijian champions Ba have also come achingly close to winning the OFC Champions League, losing to Waitakere United on away goals in the two-legged 2007 final.
Heavy rain has forced the cancellation of games in the Vodafone Premier League in recent weeks but Ba coach Imdad Ali says the club begin their tenth season competing in the OFC Champions League or its predecessor competitions with the same aim as always.
Like all the teams here we also have the dream of doing very well in the OFC Champions League,” Ali said.
“Even though the weather conditions in Fiji have hindered our preparation, nevertheless we have done some good preparation and are looking forward to the championship.”
Ali is braced for a testing encounter against local club Hienghène Sport and says with the fact that only the top team progress to the semi-finals is going to intensify the battle for points.
“Hienghène are in the Champions League for the first time and we haven’t seen a lot of them but they’re at home and I’m expecting them to give us a good run.,” he said.
“Any team that plays at home are at an advantage because of the backing of the crowd, the home environment and the weather so we expect they’ll get a boost but we will try handle them and see what we can do.”
“We cannot afford to lose games and still hope to qualify for the semi-finals. There are no second chances.”
Hienghène Sport’s coach Felix Tagawa is respectful of Ba’s pedigree in the competition and whilst his side is making its debut, he can call on an experienced core of national team players including Bertrand Kai and Roy Kayara who have tasted Champions League action with AS Magenta.
“It’s amazing to have qualified for the OFC Champions League,” Tagawa said
“But we have players who have competed before for other clubs. The players are aware of what it means to play in this competition.
“The people in the district have done a great job in organising the games and hosting the teams. We want to make them proud.”
Puaikura and Team Wellington kick off the Group B action in Koné at 5pm local time on Sunday followed by Ba taking on Hienghène Sport at 8pm.
Group A gets underway on Saturday in Noumea
Puaikura FC [COK] v Team Wellington [NZL]
Koné, New Caledonia
Sunday 26 February
Vital Statistics: Puaikura is the first club in the OFC Champions League era to play in the group stages. Tupapa Maraerenga played in the OFC Club Championship in 2001, wining one game.
The Players: A lot of Puaikura’s success will hinge on the performance of new recruit Liam Little in goal. The former New Zealand age-group ‘keeper has been signed from Southern United in the New Zealand national league.
Coach Quote: “We had the same problem [of integrating players] when we went to Tonga because it’s hard for the boys to get together with the New Zealand boys and put it all together on the field but we try our best to make it work and perform well on the field.” – Anthony Samuela, assistant coach.
Puaikura FC: 1. Liam LITTLE (GK), 2. Jarves APERAU, 3. Anthony SAMUELA, 4. Pekay EDWARDS, 5. Paul POILA, 6. Kimiora SAMUELA, 7. Samuel COX, 8. Grover HARMON, 9. Tyrell TAHIRI, 10. Jeremias PEREZ, 11. Dwayne TIPUTOA, 12. Harlem SIMIONA, 13. Andre ESTAY, 14. Ishak MOHAMMED, 15. Junior MATANGI, 16. Hone FOWLER, 17. Paul DAY, 18. Conroy TIPUTOA.
Coach: Kevin FALLON (NZL)
Vital Statistics: In two seasons in the OFC Champions League, Team Wellington have won 8 out of 10 matches. Both matches they failed to win were against Auckland City in the final, including the 2015 finale on penalties.
The Players: Tom Jackson leads the golden boot race in New Zealand with 13 goals in 16 matches and was a member of Wellington’s two previous OFC Champions League campaigns.
Coach Quote: “The nature of this format this year means we can’t afford any slip ups or a slow start. The first game is just as important as the second or third. We’ll be looking to put in a top performance and certainly won’t be taken Puaikura lightly.”
Team Wellington: 1. Scott BASALAJ (GK), 2. Justin GULLEY, 3. Omrie SAOLELE, 4. Guillermo MORETTI, 5. Bill ROBERTSON, 6. Taylor SCHRIJVERS, 7. Leo VILLA, 8. Cole PEVERLEY, 9. Tom JACKSON, 10. Nathanael HAILEMARIAM, 11. Mario BARCIA, 12. Andy BEVIN, 13. Roland BALA, 14. Billy SCOTT, 15. Joel STEVENS, 16. Ben HARRIS, 17. Sam BLACKBURN, 18. Nicolas ZAMBRANO, 19. Joshua MARGETTS, 20. Nicholas EDGINTON, 21. Niko KIRWAN, 22. James MCPEAKE (GK).
Coach: José FIGUEIRA (ENG)
Ba FC [FIJ] v Hienghène Sport [NCL]
Koné, New Caledonia
Sunday 26 February
Vital Statistics: Only New Zealand clubs Auckland City and Waitakere United have played more or won more matches in the OFC Champions League than Ba.
The Players: Seula Waqa won the OFC Champions League golden boot in the 2014-15 season with Ba and was part of Fiji’s Olympic campaign in Rio last year.
Coach Quote: “This side is made up of local boys only. Some clubs have recruited a lot of overseas players but Ba is a club that relies on its local talent. We’ve done quite well back home and I expect them to do well here as well. The club has done well in the Champions League with local players and from what I’ve seen these boys have what it takes to do well here also.”
Ba: 1. Shaneel NAIDU (GK), 2. Avinesh SUWAMY, 3. Meli CODRO, 4. Manasa NAWAKULA, 5. Ronil KUMAR, 6. Suliano TAWANAKORO, 7. Samuela NABENIA, 8. Patrick RALULU, 9. Abbu Zahid SHAHEED, 10. Mavileko NAKAMA, 11. Praneel NAIDU, 12. Remueru TEKIATE, 13. Amena BOLAITAMANA, 14. Josefata NEIBULI, 15. Saula WAQA, 16. Malakai TIWA, 17. Narendra RAO, 18. Laisenia NAIOKO, 19. Jonetani NEWA, 20. Josaia RATU (GK), 21. Malakai RAKULA.
Coach: Imdad ALI (FIJ)
Vital Statistics: Hienghène Sport qualified for the 2017 OFC Champions League by finishing runner-up in the 2015 New Caledonia Super Ligue. It was the fifth time since 2009 they had claimed second spot but all in years when New Caledonia only had one Champions League place.
The Players: The evergreen Bertrand Kai leads a quintet of Hienghène players who have represented New Caledonia at senior level. Roy Kayara, Jefferson Dahite, Yohann Mercier and Iamel Kabeu have all played for Les Cagous.
Coach Quote: “It might be our first time but in order to do something twice you have to first do it once.”
Hienghène Sport: 1. Jean Yann DOUNEZECK (GK), 3. William YENTAO, 4. Pothin POMA, 5. Jordan DINET, 6. Adolphe BOAOUTHO, 7. Anthony KAI, 9. Jefferson DAHITE, 10. Miguel KAYARA, 11. Bertrand KAI, 12. Warren HOUALA, 13. Roy KAYARA, 14, Giani KAYARA, 15. Clifton KANVA, 16. Harry DINET, 18. Renaldo POINDJIAO (GK), 19. Rocky NYIKEINE (GK), 24. Rudy KAYARA, 27. George BAMY, 28. Franck SINEM, 29. Johanès BERNOL, 30. Yvanoe BAMY, 33. Iamel KABEU, 34. Yohann MERCIER,
Coach: Felix TAGAWA (FRA)
To view the match schedule for the OFC Champions League visit www.oceaniafootball.com