OFC Champions League football returns to Wellington as the quarterfinals roar into action with Team Wellington hosting Lae City Dwellers at David Farrington Park on Saturday afternoon.
The match is first of four showdowns between the top eight taking place this weekend and Team Wellington coach José Figueira is pleased to have earned home advantage for their clash following a testing group stage campaign in Honiara.
“It’s great,” Figueira said, “last year when we hosted the second leg of the semi-final against Magenta it was a special day for the club. We got some wonderful support from the Wellington football community and you don’t get many opportunities to host champions league football.
“We’re lucky enough to have achieved that this year. The players are excited and looking forward to playing in front of a good crowd and hosting another champions league game.”
The match is shaping as battle between two teams who have matured over recent seasons in relation to OFC Champions League.
Wellington’s growth may well be more nuanced seeing as the club have made the final in each of the previous seasons but Figueira has tweaked their style of play and his core group is arguably younger but more experienced than previous seasons as they look to finally convert recent domestic success into a regional title.
“Certainly now in my second season at the club, with the player turnover and the key players we’ve brought in, we’ve shown this season on the field that we’ve evolved our play and become more consistent,” Figueira said.
“We’re probably not as free-scoring as last year but we’re a lot harder to beat and harder to break down and that comes from our organisation with the ball so in that aspect we’ve taken a giant stride this year.
“Off the field, we’re given the players the best chance to succeed as we can and as a club we’ve enjoyed some domestic success over the last few seasons but make no bones about it the OFC Champions League is obviously the big one that firstly teams want to be part of and secondly, for us we want to go that one step further.”
While Wellington lost their New Zealand title on the weekend, Lae edged closer to regaining their domestic crown, with their latest result extending an unbeaten NSL season and sending them 10 points clear.
Understandably, Lae are in healthy spirits.
“I think our performance at home has given us a lot of confidence,” said Lae City Dwellers coach Peter Gunemba, “we came through very well through the last couple of games.
“We faced teams that played well against us and gave us a good test but I saw the way the players responded and I think we head to New Zealand with a lot for confidence to go and do something special in Wellington.”
Led by experienced striker Raymond Gunemba, Lae have improved over each of their three Champions League campaigns and coach Peter Gunemba believes they are building from season to season and from game to game in confederation competition.
“In the past two OFC Champions Leagues we’ve struggled because most of the players were new and had to learn how to make the step up to that level. That’s something we’ve come through and I think we’ve learned a lot and have some belief.
“We are well prepared to take on Wellington. If they beat us it won’t be by much and if they underestimate us then good for them because we’ll be there to cause an upset.”
While the semi-finals and finals of the OFC Champions League revert to a home and away format the quarterfinals are hosted by the teams who finished as group winners.
While Gunemba would have preferred to bring Wellington back to Papua New Guinea he thinks his side have enough to spring a surprise.
“It’s only a one-off game so we’ll throw everything we have to try and get something out of the game.”
Team Wellington and Lae City Dwellers kick off at 2pm Saturday (NZT) in the first of four OFC Champions League this weekend.
Team Wellington [NZL] vs. Lae City Dwellers [PNG]
David Farrington Park
Wellington, New Zealand
Saturday 7 April
Kick-off: 14h00 (local)
Referee: Kader ZITOUNI (TAH)
Assistant Referee 1: Folio MOEAKI (TGA)
Assistant Referee 2: Bernard MUTUKERA (SOL)
Fourth Official: George TIME (SOL)
Vital Statistics: Team Wellington have played Papua New Guinea opposition on two occasions beating Hekari United 2-0 and 4-0 in 2015 and 2016 respectively in Fiji and Auckland. Wellington have never lost a OFC Champions League playoff match to any team other than Auckland City in their three runs to the final although they did draw 2-2 in the first leg of last year’s semi-finals before a resounding win at home sealed a 9-3 aggregate win.
The Players: Nathanial Hailemariam and Andy Bevin have taken on more attacking responsibility this season with the departure of other key players. The pair often play as dual ‘number 10s’ behind striker Ross Allen and will again be largely responsible for unlocking the visitors’ defence.
Coach Quote: “PNG are a strong footballing nation now. We’re aware of Lae’s threats and in particular the number of national team players who performed in the OFC Nations Cup and pushed them to the brink of that title. We’ve got to make sure we’re performing at the top of our game. In that controlled, focussed manner to getius through to the semi-final.”
Team List: 1. Scott BASALAJ (GK), 2. Justin GULLEY (c), 3. Scott HILLIAR, 4. Mario ILICH, 5. Liam WOOD, 6. Taylor SCHRIJVERS, 7. Eric MOLLOY, 10. Nathanael HAILEMARIAM, 11. Mario BARCIA, 12. Andrew BEVIN, 13. Roy KAYARA, 14. Jack-Henry SINCLAIR, 16. Angus KILKOLLY, 19. Ross ALLEN, 20. Hamish WATSON, 21. Daniel MULHOLLAND, 22, Marcel KAMPMAN (GK).
Coach: Jose FIGUEIRA [ENG]
Lae City Dwellers
Vital Statistics: Lae City Dwellers are currently unbeaten through nine games in the Papua New Guinea NSL and are 10 points clear at the top of the standings. They can wrap up the title with two games to spare when they return to domestic action next week. This season continues Lae’s improvement over their three seasons of OFC Champions League involvement finishing pointless in 2016, claiming their first win in 2017 then notching two victories to make the quarterfinals this year.
The Players: Raymond Gunemba is a proven goal scorer for club and country having netted 8 times in 9 OFC Champions League games for Lae City Dwellers (including a four-goal haul against Tupapa Maraerenga in this season’s group stage) and another two goals while playing for Hekari. His golden-boot winning tally of five goals in as many games for Papua New Guinea led the Kapuls to the OFC Nations Cup tally in 2016. The talismanic striker also has experience of New Zealand conditions having played for Hamilton Wanderers in the 2016-17 season, netting against Team Wellington during that time.
Coach Quote: “We’ve learnt how to play against teams on their home grounds in lots of different countries like Fiji, New Zealand and Vanuatu and that will help us a lot. To play Wellington, yes they’ll be the favourites but we are here and our jobs is to do everything for our team and our country to try and cause an upset.”
Team List: 1. Matheson NASA (GK), 3. Valentine NELSON, 4. Goropaul ALBERT, 5. Mosie MILUBWA, 6. Troy GUNEMBA, 7. Raymond GUNEMBA (c), 8. Jacob SABUA, 9. Nigel DABINYABA, 10. Obert BIKA, 12. Mathew DAVID, 14. Emmanuel SIMON, 16. Japhet TIAMPO, 17. Billson BULO, 18. Peter DABINYABA JNR., 20. Ronald WARISAN (GK), 22. Andrew RARANGIA, 24. Tutizama TANITO.
Coach: Peter GUNEMBA [PNG]