An extra-time rocket from Solomon Islands’ international Dennis Ifunaoa led Labasa to secure their second title of the season courtesy of the 1-0 victory over Suva at the weekend.
The win sees Labasa create history with their first Inter-District Championship title on western soil crowning an unbeaten streak in the competition which was held at Prince Charles Park in Nadi.
The final offered fans who braved the wet weather with some nail-biting moments as both teams fought hard to get the victory under heavy downpour and slippery ground condition.
Goalkeepers Akuila Mateisuva for Labasa and Simione Tamanisau of Suva were at their best and made some brilliant saves to keep their respective sheets clean in the first half.
Christopher Wasasala had the best chance of the opening period as he beat the defence and the keeper but the ball stopped dead before it could cross the goal line.
The second half was also dominated by goalkeeping brilliance, missed chances and some poor decision making in front of goal.
The heavy ground condition led to several injuries the most notable one being to Tamanisau who had to be replaced by Emori Ragata toward the end of the second half.
Strikers Siotame Kubu of Labasa and Suva’s Sairusi Nalaubu were also pulled out after copping injuries.
With the teams inseparable at the end of 90 minutes, the match headed into extra time.
Labasa went on attack from the restart and a long through pass from Akeimi Ralulu was beautifully controlled on the right hand edge of the box by Ifunaoa, as he turned and lined up his attempt which rocketed past Ragata rattling the net and sending the crowd into a frenzy.
Suva Coach Kamal Swamy sent in late reinforcements and pushed Ivan Kumar and Shahil Dave into attack, but a composed Labasa defence led by Iliesa Lino and Antonio Tuivuna kept them at bay until the final whistle sounded.
“All credit goes to the players and the coach for the marvellous work they have done in IDC. By winning the IDC we have proven that we are the most consistent team in Fiji soccer this year as we have also won the Battle of Giants,” and elated club president Rayaz Khan said following the match.
The hero of the encounter, Ifunaoa, couldn’t contain his elation at being able to contribute to the victory.
“It’s a special feeling, especially when you play in such a tough and competitive tournament like this. The atmosphere was electrifying the support of the fans was amazing,” he said.
“I have been following Fiji football from the time I was a kid. I used to follow players like Batram Suri and Commins Menapi when they were playing here. I feel very honoured and privileged to come and play here and to win a second tournament with Labasa definitely means a lot to me.”
The 27-year-old who recently featured for the Solomon Islands national team in the Pacific Games in Samoa said Fijian soccer is a bit more physical and intense than what he’s used to back home.
“Here the players especially the defenders are very tall and physically built. Also there is so much passion in both the fans and the players and I feel good to be playing here and representing a team like Labasa which has some very skilful and good footballers. I can easily adjust to their style of football as they mostly play one touch.”
Describing the goal that he scored in the final, Ifunaoa said: “I had to make that run. When Akeimi made that cross, I told myself I am going to go for it, and as soon as I got the ball, I turned around, waited, saw the goal mouth again and then took the shot, I put all my strength into that shot.”
Coach Ronil Lal said the decision to introduce the talented striker late in the game was a tactical one.
“That was our strategy as we worked around him. We do a lot of ball work where we try to keep possession.
“We tightened our defence and went into a 5-4-1 pattern. We crowded the midfield and that is where Suva started to play from the outside, but we stood our ground.
“The weather wasn’t on anyone’s side but we got the win.”
It’s the fifth time Labasa have won the title, although the first time on western soil, and it was a meaningful win for the coach.
“It means a lot to me to guide the team to victory for the second time this year,” Lal said of also taking out the BOG title earlier this year.
“This win is the highlight of my coaching career.”