Image credit: Phototek

An OFC Champions League for the ages is set for a fitting final in Port Vila, Vanuatu tomorrow when 10-time champions Auckland City FC defend their crown against a genuine contender in Suva FC.

Wednesday’s phenomenal semi-finals – where Auckland City were three minutes away from being eliminated before winning on penalties and a 10-man Fijian side also rallied from the brink to triumph in extra time – showed that both teams have tremendous heart to go with their undoubted skill.

The New Zealand side’s experienced captain Cam Howieson appreciates this showpiece finale comes at the end of a long two-week campaign and tournament football, as shown in the semis, is played on the field, not on paper.

“These teams can bring anything out of the bag so we have to be switched on from minute one,” Howieson said. “We know if we give them a sniff, the crowd’s going to get up, they enjoy goals and that makes life for us a lot more difficult.

“We have to stay true to our game, make sure we start well…and I’m sure if we do the basics well and stick to what we’re good at, we’ll be okay.”

Howieson pointed to semi-final opponent Ifira Black Bird as the ultimate example of a team rising to unexpected levels and said their contest was the greatest he’s ever taken part in. For someone who has played 159 times for Auckland City and in 15 tests for the All Whites it’s quite a revelation.

“I’ve played in a few and it’s definitely the toughest opponent I’ve played – internationally and at club level for Auckland City,” Howieson said. “It shows how well they’re doing things here (in Vanuatu). They were very good and we had to be at our best to win.”

Tomorrow should be much the same. Suva FC have plenty of local support and are chasing an historic first title, striving to become the first Fijian team to lift the trophy.

“They’re a good quality side,” Howieson said. “They’ve got some big boys and they’re dangerous on set pieces. We just have to play our game, keep the ball as much as we can and try to control the game.”

While Suva FC are only the third Fijian team behind Ba and Lautoka to make the final in the modern Champions League era, dating back to 2007, Auckland City’s gunning for title number 11. And Howieson said they are as hungry as ever.

“We want to defend that title and what a way it would be to do it in the islands,” the 28-year-old attacking midfielder said. “It means a lot for us to come overseas and win something (so important), so we’ll be doing everything we can to lift that trophy once again.”

On the line is not only the trophy, but qualification for December’s FIFA Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia, the final seven-team tournament before it expands to 32 teams and becomes a four-yearly event from 2025.

“I don’t want to look too far ahead because this game is so important and we need to get across the line first,” Howieson said. “We’re fully focused on this game because it’s a one-off…and anything can happen.”

After a wet few weeks the sun has emerged with a vengeance in Port Vila and while the forecast for the final is mainly cloudy, the temperature is set to hit the 30 degree mark.

The heat will definitely be on the Kiwi favourites.

“I’m very excited,” Howieson said. “It’s always a different challenge coming to the islands rather than being in Auckland, at home and comfortable. Being here and out of our comfort zone makes it even more enjoyable when you appear in these finals.”