New Zealand outfit Eastern Suburbs produced a polished performance against an injury-plagued Hienghène Sport to rein supreme in Group A of the OFC Champions League and secure home advantage in the knock-out stages.
Meanwhile Galaxy FC from Vanuatu clinched the second quarterfinal spot up for grabs by finishing runners-up ahead of Hekari United on goal difference, despite a 2-1 defeat to the Papua New Guinea side on a dramatic final matchday at Port Moresby’s Sir John Guise Stadium.
Hienghène Sport 0-4 Eastern Suburbs AFC
Going into the third and final matchday the reigning champions from New Caledonia needed to win by at least three goals to keep their title defence alive, while the tournament newcomers from Auckland had to avoid defeat in order to guarantee their place in the final eight of the competition.
Unfortunately for Hienghène supporters, Felix Tagawa was forced to make major adjustments to his preferred starting line-up due injuries to some of his key players and the New Zealanders took full advantage to race to a two-goal lead inside the opening 17 minutes.
Martin Bueno settled the Kiwis’ nerves with a powerful header to open the scoring before Reid Drake put his side well and truly in the driving seat with a well-executed chip over Rocky Nyikeine.
Following the half-time break Bueno put the result beyond any doubt by picking out the top right corner with a clinical finish for his sixth goal in three matches.
Adam Thurston sealed the win for the Aucklanders deep into injury time to the delight of Tony Readings.
“I thought we were fantastic today,” enthused the victorious coach.
“We knew we were up against a good team and we knew they had to win to progress from the group so we knew they were going to come at us and they did. I think getting two goals early really helped but we are very pleased with the performance. We had tricky conditions here but we were very disciplined defensively and pretty good in attack,” Readings continued.
“Overall we are happy and we do feel like we have grown in each game and very pleased to progress from this tough group. It’s fantastic for us. This is the first time for us in this tournament. I think everyone knew this was the toughest group so to get out of this, is amazing for us.”
Meanwhile, Hienghène Sport coach Felix Tagawa remained philosophical despite the defending champion’s early exit from the competition.
“We couldn’t bring our best team here because some of our key players had to stay behind in New Caledonia for their work or family commitments. We are not a professional team so we can’t demand everything from our players. Last season was exhausting for our club, our players and staff and some of our main players needed a break, which in the end counted a lot during this campaign,” he said.
Hekari United 2-1 Galaxy FC
The equation was simple for the Hekari; they needed to win by three goals or more to leapfrog Galaxy FC into that all-important second place on the table.
Spurred on by a lively home crowd at Sir John Guise Stadium, the hosts threw caution to the wind but were unable to breach the defence of their Vanuatu opponents during a tense opening half, which produced plenty of chances at both ends.
The match came alive in the 54th minute when Ati Kepo gave Hekari the lead and belief with an emphatic finish.
Excitement level in the stands reached fever pitch ten minutes later as Kepo grabbed his second to put the hosts on the verge of qualification.
However, talismanic Galaxy playmaker Bong Kalo silenced the home crowd six minutes from the end, by slotting home on his return to the side from a two-match suspension that kept him out of tournament up to this point.
Despite the defeat, Galaxy held onto second place in Group A due to their superior goal difference.
“I knew it was going to be a huge game for us against Hekari on their home ground and it was a relief to score that goal that sealed our qualification. I’m really proud of my team’s achievement,” said Galaxy coach Batram Suri after the match.
“Even when we were 2-nil down I believed in my boys and I knew we have the ability to score, and the goal was a great contribution by Bong Kalo,” he added.
Meanwhile his Hekari counterpart Jerry Allen remained gracious despite his disappointment.
“We wanted to win today to give something back to our fans and despite we missed out on qualification because of our goal difference, we still managed to win,” the Hekari coach said.
“When we were up 2-nil and had some momentum I thought we are going to score again and qualify. We had some chances but it’s football and today it wasn’t to be. I’m still proud of the boys and want to thank all the people who came out supporting us,” added Allen.
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