Lae City Dwellers opened their OFC Champions league campaign with a resounding 7-2 win over Tupapa Maraerenga but it was all eyes on a thrilling matchup between home side Nalkutan and Fiji’s Ba FC at Korman Stadium this afternoon.
“I’m very happy, very happy as a coach,” Nalkutan’s Moise Poida said after his side recorded its first ever win in the OFC Champions League with the 1-0 victory over Ba.
“We expected a very good team across from us tonight, I’m happy with the many supporters, they came out tonight and cheered for my team and that really helped us get a victory today.”
After a nervous start, Nalkutan soon got into the swing of things on the regional stage, putting their experienced opponents under pressure with precision passing and a powerful attack.
Old hats at this game, the Solomon Islands trio of Nelson Sale, James Naka and Joses Nawo shone with their renowned style proving a handful for the Ba backline.
Rising star Azariah Soromon was a constant attacking threat with at least two very near misses denied only by the agility of Ba goalkeeper Josaia Ratu in the first half.
Ba threatened at times throughout the opening 60 minutes but weren’t quite able to threaten the Nalkutan goal as much as they would have liked.
Things fell into place for the home side in the 64th minute when a handball from Malakai Tiwa prevented a goal scoring opportunity in the Ba penalty area earning him his second caution, and Nalkutan a penalty.
James Naka stepped up to the spot to nail his 12th goal in the OFC Champions League and an historic one for Nalkutan.
A foolish decision from Nawo saw the playing field levelled as on off the ball incident led to his sending off, and despite being down to ten men each the intensity never dropped.
That made for a thrilling final 20 minutes with Saula Waqa coming close with an effort which came down off the inside of the crossbar before bouncing back out for Kaloran Firiam to snatch, and another just before the final whistle which was just off-target.
Ba coach Ronil Kumar said it was a hard loss to take and he believed his side could do better than what they did this evening.
“It was our first game and we needed to just adjust a little better, a little quicker. Unfortunately there was a penalty against us, there’s not much we can do about that. It was hard luck for us.”
In the opening match Qualifier winners Tupapa Maraerenga were hoping to make their return to the Group Stage after a 17 year hiatus, memorable also.
However Lae City Dwellers are on a journey of their own to qualify for the next round for the first time and therefore took an approach to the match that proved lethal to the game plan put in place by Alex Napa and his squad.
Nigel Dabinyaba wasted no time in signalling his return to the OFC Champions League, breaking down the Tupapa defence after just ten minutes to open the scoring. Captain Raymond Gunemba followed that up just five minutes later with a goal of his own before Solomon Islander Tutizama Tanito netted in the 24th minute to give Lae a three goal lead.
Tupapa pulled one back toward the end of the half when Sean Latimer slotted past Ronald Warisan from the spot, but that only seemed to incite Lae to do more damage in the second half.
Dabinyaba nabbed a brace with his 64th minute strike, but Gunemba one-upped him by scoring a second-half hat-trick.
Tupapa’s Maro Bonsu-Maro was rewarded for a lot of hard work when he scored a well-worked goal in the first minute of additional time, but the deficit was already too great for the Cook Islanders to overcome.
Lae City Dwellers coach Peter Gunemba could not have been prouder of the performance from his side.
“I’m very, very pleased for the boys’ performance. For the weather, we’re used to it so it’s not a problem for us.
“The opposition we found very good. They’re a bit slow and heavy but tactically they’re very good so we found it very difficult to score against them. We expected to score more goals to be honest but that’s the way it is.”
Tupapa coach Alex Napa knew it would be a step up from the Qualifier and felt his side did a lot of learning, and very fast.
“For starters, congratulations to Lae City, I think they’re a quality side,” Napa said.
“I think from this experience the boys will have taken on board that when there’s a lapse in concentration at this level, you get punished. If you turn off in the middle of a play, you get punished.
“And those are hard lessons because the level at club level in our home country is very different to this and so it’s a really good experience for us to take back as a team.”
Napa added that he felt his side were also able to show some great promise.
“I’m also very proud of them. We were able to take some chances, and we had some good ones in the first half, and they’re not afraid of any side.”
Group A will be back in action at Korman Stadium in Vanuatu on Tuesday when Lae City Dwellers take on Ba at 2pm before Tupapa Mararenga play Nalkutan at 5pm.