New Zealand’s two decade dominance of Oceania’s premier club football competition ended abruptly today in Noumea, when Hienghene Sports and AS Magenta overcame title holders Team Wellington and nine time champions Auckland City respectively to set up the first ever all-New Caledonia OFC Champions League final.
Such has been the dominance of New Zealand teams in the competition, that this year’s showpiece event will be the first since 2005 not to feature a kiwi side.
The lively and vocal local fans packed into Stade Numa Daly for the double-header, and few will forget the amazing scenes and the historical significance, as the two perennial favourites tumbled out on a scintillating day of semi-final football.
Hienghène Sports 2 : 0 Team Wellington
In the opening match, it was a first half of contrasts, with Team Wellington opening brilliantly when Eric Molloy’s curler struck the base of the right hand upright and somehow stayed out.
This set the tone for the next twenty minutes, as Jose Figueira’s side mercilessly exploited space down both flanks, fashioning chance after chance. The best one of these fell to veteran centre back Bill Robertson, who could only head over the bar when unmarked in the six yard box.
Hienghène goalkeeper Rocky Nykiene was called into action on numerous occasions, and in the first of a number of fine saves, he tipped over a goal-bound screamer from Taylor Schrijvers.
Wellington’s relentless pressure was also causing Hienghène to turn over the ball quickly, and it looked like Felix Tagawa’s side were in for a long afternoon.
But after weathering the initial storm, Hienghène grew into the game, finding some attacking rhythm and space of their own. Bertrand Kai was no longer isolated, the Kayara brothers started to dictate, and Yvanoe Bamy caused some problems for Wellington down the right hand side. For the remainder of the half it was the champions’ turn to keep their opponents at bay, and an absorbing opening period ended with the two teams locked up.
Hienghène started the second half brightly and were rewarded immediately – Geordy Gony soaring above the Wellington defence to power home Kai’s pinpoint corner at the back post.
Moments later it was nearly two, when Kai played a killer ball to the impressive Jefferson Dahite, but the advancing Scott Basalaj was equal to the task, saving superbly from the Hienghène striker.
Wellington looked to respond quickly, with Henry Cameron striking a free kick wide from a handy position. Playmakers Mario Illich and Andy Bevin began to up the tempo, but Hienghène recognised the danger, managing to take some sting out of the game. The always dangerous Kai was able to provide an outlet when they won possession and the midfield pairing of goalscorer Gony and the immense Cedrick Sansot grew in stature, getting through a mountain of work in the engine room.
Figueira went to his bench, injecting both lively winger Joel Stevens and golden boot frontrunner Ross Allen into proceedings, and it almost paid immediate dividends, but Nykiene was again to the fore, saving superbly in a one v one with the predatory Allen.
In the final stages of normal time, Allan squandered two more chances before the mercurial Kai, in time added on, found himself in space on the edge of the box and took the ball to the byeline, before his cutback was expertly steered home by Dahite.
Hienghène had applied the killer blow, and the champions’ reign was over.
Hienghène coach Felix Tagawa was understandably delighted for his team to make their first ever OFC final.
“The pressure was on throughout the 90 minutes and now, I’m happy for the players and I’m so happy with their performance, even if the first 20 minutes weren’t so great. We really wanted it, at the back we were tight and we imposed our game from time to time. It’s a shame we couldn’t keep that up the whole match but the goal which opened the scoring at the beginning of the second half is really what gave us the advantage.”
Tagawa paid tribute to his club and the fact that such results doesn’t happen every day.
“It’s for players, the administrators, our families. They’re the ones who have helped drive this project, who created this club exactly for this reason, to live these beautiful performances. I am Hienghène, but behind that we need to do the work on and off the field, to prepare the players as best we can. I’m so pleased to be making history with this club.”
“It’s incredible,” he added.
A disappointed Jose Figueira rued his side’s inability to convert their chances and felt on another day his side could have emerged victorious.
“I think today’s an example of what football is. We started fantastically, probably should have been two nil up, but when you don’t take your chances against a good side in their own stadium and they get confidence, anything can happen.”
Figueira was disappointed Team Wellington’s run in the Champions League to had come to an end.
“We’re disappointed, we wanted to retain our title and we don’t have Champions League next year, so it gives an opportunity to refocus and refresh. But these disappointed feelings are fuel to make everybody, including myself, work harder to make sure we’re back the year after.”
“But congratulations to Hienghène, they’re a fantastic team, and we wish them all the best for the final,” he added
AS Magenta 2 : 1 Auckland City
From the outset of the second match, Magenta were intent on disrupting the nine time champions from settling into their usual possession-based rhythm.
The Aucklanders, however, were able to adopt a more direct approach and still create some early chances. Angel Berlanga squandered the best opportunity of the opening stanza, blazing a knockdown from a corner over the bar from close range.
Magenta looked dangerous on the break, with Richard Sele and Kevin Nemia forcing Auckland’s back four to into action, with Nemia denied by a good save from Auckland goalkeeper Enaut Zubikarai midway through the first half.
Auckland perhaps had the better of the opening period, but it took a moment of individual brilliance five minutes before the turn around to break the deadlock, and it was Micah Lea’alafa – as he so often does in the big matches – who lit up the stadium with a solo effort. The Solomon Islander collected the ball 30 metres out and slalomed his way past four defenders before finishing superbly, rifling an unstoppable angled shot past Steeve Ixoee to put Auckland ahead.
Magenta’s response was swift and unexpected. A well-timed Magenta through ball saw Zubikarai advance from his area and he was shown a straight red card after having been adjudged to have handled the ball. Replacement gloveman Ruben Parker had scarcely taken his place between the sticks when he was picking the ball out of the back the net – Nemia having struck the resultant free kick sweetly past him for the equaliser on the stroke of half time.
The reorganised 10 men of Auckland began the second half brightly. With Dylan Manickum having been sacrificed for Parker, Ramon Tribulietix opted to employ Fabrizio Tavano as a lone target man and Auckland enjoyed a good period of possession.
But Alain Moizan’s well organised side sensed their opportunity and with playmaker Sele’s growing influence, they created several chances, without being able to finish.
Just as everyone was preparing for extra time, Magenta’s moment arrived and it was Kevin Maitran who was on hand to roll Jean Christ Wajoka’s assist into an empty net following a goal mouth slip-up from Jordan Vale.
Tavano still had time to hit the bar with a long free kick and the excellent Sele had the ball in the net again for Magenta following a swift counter attack, but it was ruled out for offside.
Moments later it was all over. Instead of the all-New Zealand final that many would have predicted, Stade Numa Daly – and Oceania – shook with anticipation, of an all-New Caledonia final in two weeks.
Magenta coach Alain Moizan recognised the magnitude of the occasion, but was not ready to celebrate.
“I will be incredibly happy, as soon as we win the final. But obviously we’re happy because the objective, was to make it into the semifinals. After that anything is possible and we proved that today, with a lot of difficulty, but then a semifinal should be hard especially against a team that has been the best in Oceania for the past ten years.”
“In the first half we needed the sending off of the goalkeeper, the fact they were playing with ten, the fact they had to take a player off and the one they took off was really annoying for us up front – it made the task a bit easier for us.”
“The second half we were patient, we played the ball around and we did what we needed to by scoring the goal three minutes from the end.”
“I’ve been here ten years, we’ve won the championship seven times, and the cup five, so we wanted something else. This is extraordinary, we’re going to play in the final and we’re happy it will be against Hienghene and not a New Zealand team for once,” Moizan said.
Despite the result, a dejected Ramon Tribulietix was quick to praise his team.
“You know it’s very disappointing but the only thing I can say is that I’m really proud of my players.”
“The second half was always going to be very hard to play with ten men for a very long time. I think we did really well, they only had a couple of crosses, but not really anything dangerous before scoring a second goal, but that’s football sometimes.”
“I think before that we were in control of the game but I want to re-emphasise that our players did fantastically well and we have to be really proud of them.”
Tribulietix’s final words were for his opposition.
“I also want to make sure that we congratulate also Magenta, they played to their weapons in some respects so they made that final and good luck to them.”