Football fans on the New Zealand domestic football scene, and across the region, have grown accustomed to witnessing Team Wellington and Auckland City FC face-off in important matches.
But after three consecutive years of these two clubs fighting it out for the title of Oceania champions, the big game has come a round earlier than usual as they get set to meet on Sunday in the first of the two leg semi-finals.
The last big final between these two sides was New Zealand’s Premiership final. Team Wellington had held Auckland City off for two seasons straight but this year the nine-time regional champions wrestled the domestic title back.
Which has many asking whether that also signals a change for the OFC Champions League, where Team Wellington are yet to earn a win over their rivals.
Jose Figuiera, Team Wellington coach, the matches this weekend and next are the closest his side has been to their northern rivals for a long time.
“It has been clear over the past few seasons that whilst Team Wellington has been the dominant team in domestic competition, Auckland City FC are the reference when it comes to the OFC Champions League,” the New Zealand U-17 national team coach said.
“They have had a core group of players that have experienced this competition and success over a number of years, something that has been a big advantage for them.
“In just my second season with Team Wellington I think we have really closed the gap on Auckland, especially on the field in terms of the way we want to play and dominate the game.”
Figuiera points to organisation as one of the key areas of improvement.
“From last year we are more organised with the ball, able to dominate possession, maintain our attacking mentality, but have also improved defensively. If you look at our results against Auckland this season – unbeaten in league play – and the close nature of the recent Grand Final, the upcoming OFC Champions League semi-finals are set up quite nicely indeed!”
Like Figueira, Ramon Tribulietx see the two sides as being tough to separate, but the Spaniard is at least confident there will be few surprises when they take to the pitch in Wellington, and then Auckland a week later.
“These matches are always difficult but both teams know each other very well,” he stated.
“We respect our opponents and understand what it is they bring to the party.
“Our focus us on how we prepare for this game, our understanding of what we have to do with and without the ball. We’ll see what happens.”
Team Wellington [NZL] vs. Auckland City FC [NZL]
Semi-Final Leg 1
Dave Farrington Park
Wellington, New Zealand
Sunday 22 April
Kick-off: 13h00 local (13h00 FIJ / 12h00 SOL)
Referee: Mederic LACOUR (NCL)
Assistant Referee 1: Sione TEU (TGA)
Assistant Referee 2: Avinesh NARAYAN (FIJ)
Fourth Official: Joel HOPKEN (VAN)
Vital Statistics: Team Wellington haven’t lost a home match in any competition since 22 October 2017 when they were beaten 3-1 by Eastern Suburbs at David Farrington Park.
The Players:With six goals in four games, Angus Kilkolly is well and truly in the hunt for the competition’s Golden Boot prize. With a knack for turning up in the right place at the right time, Kilkolly will be just one of several attacking threats Team Wellington have up their sleeves.
Coach Quote: “The best way of preparing is learning from the past, and none more recently than last year’s OFC Champions League Final where we faced Auckland City away at Kiwitea St in the first leg. Coming away from that match with a very tough score line to turn around put us in a difficult position for the second leg at home. This year the roles are reversed and after having gone through that experience, we are very clear on what needs to be done over 180 minutes and not just 90 minutes.”
Team List:1. Scott BASALAJ, 2. Justin GULLEY, 3. Scott HILLIAR, 4. Mario ILICH, 5. Liam WOOD, 7. Eric MOLLOY, 10. Nathanael HAILEMARIAM, 11. Mario BARCIA, 12. Andy BEVIN, 13. Roy KAYARA, 14. Jack-Henry SINCLAIR, 16. Angus KILKOLLY, 19. Ross ALLEN, 20. Daniel MULHOLLAND, 21. Hamish WATSON, 22. Marcel KAMPMAN (GK)
Coach:Jose FIGUIERA [ENG]
Auckland City FC
Vital Statistics:Auckland City FC is undefeated in 23 OFC Champions League matches dating back to 3 May 2014 when AS Pirae defeated the Navy Blues 2-1 in the semi-final, 2nd Leg, clash at Stade Pater, Tahiti. The run has lasted 3 years, 11 months and 13 days (1,444 days total).
The Players: Young striker Callum McCowatt has been proving his worth since joining the side this season. Movement that creates space for teammates as well as the ability to create something from very little have set the foundation for his performances.
Coach Quote: “In a way it’s a longer match with a different dynamic because of it so we have to wait and see how it unfolds. Our aim for both legs is to prepare as well as possible and be as competitive as we possibly can.”
Team List: 1. Enaut ZUBIKARAI (GK), 2. Liam GRAHAM, 5. Angel BERLANGA, 6. Te Atawhai HUDSON-WIHONGI, 7. Cameron HOWIESON, 9. Darren WHITE, 12. Kris BRIGHT, 13. Alfie ROGERS, 14. Cole PEVERLEY, 15. Daniel MORGAN, 17. Reid DRAKE, 19. Micah LEA’ALAFA, 20. Emiliano TADE, 22. Harshae RANIGA, 24. Conor TRACEY (GK), 25. Owen PARKER-PRICE, 26. Callum McCOWATT, 27. Dalton WILKINS
Coach:Ramon TRIBULIETX [ESP]