Lautoka FC will contest its first OFC Champions League final next month after beating Marist FC 1-0 at Lawson Tama Stadium this afternoon.
After tying the first leg of the semi-final 1-1 in Fiji, the pressure was very much on the visiting side to come up with something special in Oceania’s most hallowed stadium.
Coming into the encounter, Lautoka coach Kamal Swamy wasn’t phased by the idea of playing in front of a large away crowd, saying the fans would celebrate good football no matter who was playing it.
That rang true as both side’s put their best football on display and proving once again that they would be tough to separate.
Marist largely dominate the first half with numerous shots putting Lautoka’s backline under pressure. But the central pairing of Brian Kaltack and Kolinio Sivoki managed well, while the Fijian side’s goalkeeper Beniamino Mateinaqara also making key saves to keep his side alive in the fixture.
Marist’s Atkin Kaua showed grit and determination following his return to the OFC Champions League after being forced to watch the past two fixtures from the sideline with injury.
Making quick, driving runs up the flank and creating chances for strikers Mathias Iani and Abraham Iniga, Kaua was impressive and it seemed only a matter of time before Marist would take the lead.
But the common theme throughout Marist’s foray in this competition has been a need to strengthen in the finishing department and that once again proved to be their downfall today, in particular in the first half.
For Lautoka there was no lack of chances either, although they weren’t able to get quite as many clear-cut opportunities as their opponents.
In the end all it took was a rare lapse in the Marist defence and an unmarked Praneel Naidu was able to beat goalkeeper Anthony Talo with a first-time hit from directly in front of the goal mouth.
Swamy was elated by his side’s perseverance and ability to keep pushing after a slow start to the fixture.
“I think the half-time pep-talk was very important for us because we knew we would be out of the tournament if we didn’t do something,” he stated.
“We had to and give everything and then that was what they did. It’s just the players who gave 100 per cent and full credit to each of them, they deserve it.”
After pouring their hearts and souls into their performance in front of a home crowd of over 12,000, Marist were rightly disappointed not to be continuing what has been an exceptional journey for the club.
“It wasn’t our day today maybe,” coach Jerry Allen said after the game.
“I think we had our chances in the first half and we should have killed the game off in the first half but we missed our opportunities.
“That’s what happens in football. If you convert your chances you will win. We played well and we kept on fighting in the second half, we created some opportunities but we couldn’t put them away.
“Lautoka played very well, especially in the second half.”
While it was a tough way for Marist to end their campaign, Allen said his side should be proud of what they’ve achieved.
“I’m really prleased with my boys, they did well to come this far. It’s been quite tough for us since the first stage but we’ve managed to come through this far and I’d like to celebrate the great effort.”
Lautoka will now meet Team Wellington in the home-and-away final of the OFC Champions League 2018 with the first challenge a trip to New Zealand’s capital on the weekend of 12 and 13 May before welcoming their opponent to Churchill Park for the return leg a week later.