2010 champions Hekari United have earned a hard-fought 2-0 win over local hope Ifira Black Bird FC in Group B of the OFC Champions League 2023 in Port Vila. (Photo Credit: Phototek).
The Papua New Guinea side scored two second half goals to repel the challenge of the Vanuatu team in front of a vibrant and vociferous home crowd of nearly 6000.
Ifira Black Bird surprisingly kicked long from the kick-off and Hekari United immediately countered, streaking the length of the field in a dangerous attack.
That set the tone for a frenetic opening with sweeping movements from both sides during end-to-end play.
But the finishing didn’t match the artistry displayed during each build-up, with several weak shots and poor decision-making when scoring opportunities arose. Hekari United also struck the side netting twice.
A spirited appeal for handball in the Hekari penalty area in the 36th minute threatened to be the defining moment of the first half, but the home town pleas for a penalty were dismissed by composed referee Kavitesh Behari.
Four minutes later the raucous crowd were on their feet when Ifira Black Bird had several chances to find the back of the net during a melee in the Hekari box but the finishing, including an outrageous back heel, was once again sub-par.
The second half started in the same fashion as the first, with Hekari United making space in the very first minute to provide striker Ati Kepo with the ball at his feet in the box. He had to lay off after struggling for control, but a superb block by Joshua Tokio, who injured himself in the process, snuffed out the golden opportunity.
The first goal in the 58th minute was courtesy of an unusual occurrence. When Ifira goalkeeper Antonie Taiwia was forced to tidy up a long ball under pressure he accidentally stepped out of the box before he could let go of the ball.
Sharp-eyed officials saw the captain’s mistake and Hekari was awarded a free kick directly in front of the goal, on the edge of the penalty box. Ifira formed a 10-strong yellow and green wall, but couldn’t prevent Yagi Yasasa from drilling the ball into the top right hand corner.
Now 1-0 down, the Black Bird players flocked towards the opposition goal with intent on numerous occasions, forcing several corners.
The attacking mindset led to a let-up on defence and it was against the run of play that Hekari doubled their lead. Yasasa set up 19-year-old replacement Rex Naime to drive home when one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
Despite constant attacking raids, Ifira couldn’t convert chances into goals and now face a tense battle to qualify for the semi-finals.
Earlier Tahitian side AS Pirae swept aside New Caledonia’s Tiga Sport 3-0.
Hekari United FC: 2 (Yagi YASASA 58’, Rex NAIME 82’)
Ifira Black Bird FC: 0