OFC Champions League debutants Nalkutan used home ground to their advantage as an impressive second half performance saw them overcome the favoured Lae City Dwellers 4-1 to claim the top of Group A at Korman Stadium this evening.
The thrilling pseudo-final was preceded by a showdown between the already eliminated Ba and Tupapa Maraerenga with the Fijians big game experience helping them to a 4-1 victory and lifting them off the bottom of the table.
With an emphatic performance from his side, Nalkutan coach Moise Poida said execution was near perfect.
“I’m very happy,” Poida said.
“Every day we prepared our boys because we wanted to go through, but we also wanted to play here again.”
The top two teams in Group A, the fans who trickled into Korman Stadium knew they would be in for a tight match, and for the first 45 minutes they were.
Both sides had chances, although the home side appeared to enjoy much more possession, and were inseparable going into the break.
However Nalkutan came out of the sheds much more prepared for the second half and almost caught Lae sleeping as Azariah Soromon netted just two minutes after the restart. A second came in the 58th minute followed a minute later by substitute Richard Manuriki’s well placed strike.
Lae City Dwellers answered back through Nigel Dabinyaba who latched onto a great pass before chipping it into the net. Soromon rounded out his hat-trick and put the game to bed in the 90th minute to send the crowd into a frenzy.
After a fairly even first half where both sides enjoyed chances in a high-pace, test of strength and stamina, Poida said the instructions at the break were clear.
“We analysed the first half and changed a bit the way we played. We had to take them behind the back so the combinations in the final third were really important.
“We managed to get it right in the second half pretty quickly, and that early goal gave us confidence and put them under a lot of pressure.”
Lae City Dwellers coach Peter Gunemba was unhappy his side wouldn’t be offering their supporters a home match for the quarter final, but said the most important thing was qualifying, which they did.
“We were supposed to play our best today but something went wrong,” he said.
“We were thinking we would play better in the second half, even though in the first they raided our defence a few times. I know we can play better but I think they went in and went to sleep.
“The goal went in and the boys just lost concentration and they need to be on all the time at this level.”
Gunemba said the mind-set switches to the quarter final now and making sure the side is as prepared as possible.
In the opening match of the day Ba went in as favourites and although the Qualifier winners put up a decent defensive performance, it started fraying from around the 20 minute mark.
Ba enjoyed much more of the ball and the conditions played to their style of football well as they switched between quick passes through the middle and long chips over the backline.
The persistent attacking finally wore Tupapa down in the 24th minute when wily striker Samuela Nabenia found the back of the net for the Fijian side’s first goal of the tournament. He struck twice more either side of the break before his former Fiji U-20 teammate Narend Rao netted a fourth.
Maro Bonsu-Maro put in the hard yards to set up Sean Latimer, who made no mistake when he lashed the ball low to score in the 76th minute but the damage was already done.
Fiji coach Ronil Kumar said he was happy to at least be going home with three points.
“It makes me really happy that we started scoring goals even if it wasn’t until the third game. At least we are taking back three points,” he said.
“It’s not the end of the road for us. We will iron out the mistakes and be back for 2019.”
Tupapa Maraerenga’s Alex Napa said the competition was very much a learning experience for his side, with the younger member definitely the main recipients.
“We knew coming here that it would be tough, and we looked at it as a learning experience.
“I am certain that for some of the team’s younger members, perhaps in 2-3 years’ time they will be leading a Cook Islands team much further through in this competition.
Nalkutan will host a home quarter-final while Lae City Dwellers will await the official draw on 5 March to learn where they will be heading next in the OFC Champions League 2018.