(Photo Credit: OFC Media via Phototek)
Fijian champions Suva FC have edged out Tahiti’s AS Pirae 4-2 in extra time at Vanuatu’s Freshwater Stadium to make Saturday’s final of OFC Champions League 2023.
Despite playing the last 21 minutes of regulation time and half an hour of extra time with 10 men, Suva found the strength to score two goals while a man down and keep their campaign alive.
After the pulsating drama of the first semi-final, won by Auckland City FC on penalties after an epic battle with Port Vila locals Ifira Black Bird, the second semi was a more sedate affair, with the first half never truly engaging the healthy crowd.
Suva FC’s early dominance didn’t help generate tension. That first spell was one-way traffic with the Fijian side enjoying a mountain of possession, winning ball deep in AS Pirae territory and creating numerous chances.
Magical midfielder Alex Saniel was making the ball talk and had the Tahitian defenders working overtime.
After his attacking unit squandered three good chances defender Simione Nabenu pressed forward to show how it was done, being the unlikely source of the opening goal in the 14th minute.
The only other piece of excitement in the lacklustre first half was when Suva FC’s Azariah Soromon broke and was clipped and brought down by a leaping AS Pirae goalkeeper Francois Decoret well outside the penalty area. But referee David Yareboinen ruled it was a fair attempt to stifle the chip over the keeper’s head.
The match sprung into life two minutes after the break when Marlon Tahioa placed a great ball into the path of Soromon, who curled it home to make it 2-0.
A minute later Soromon evaded the offside trap, sprinted into the box and laid off to Samuela Drudru instead of shooting himself. The ball didn’t fall well for his skipper and the chance went begging.
The missed opportunity took on greater significance ten minutes later when AS Pirae halftime substitute Tamatoa Tetauira – who arrived in Vanuatu only an hour before the delayed kick-off – found himself in space on the left and his sweetly struck shot beat Suva goalkeeper Akuila Mateisuva to give his side hope at 2-1 down.
Their spirits were lifted even further in the 59th minute when Suva FC’s Filipe Baravilala received a second yellow card and was sent from the field.
Suva parked the bus, establishing a five-strong defensive line as they looked to protect their one-goal lead.
But the tactical decision wasn’t without danger and AS Pirae, a side that looked as if they were running on empty at times given a long tournament with an undermanned squad, conjured the dramatic equaliser one minute from the end of regulation time. Ariiura Labaste’s slick header from a cross found the back of the net to send the match into overtime – in a repeat of the day’s first semi-final.
The key moment came in added time of the first stanza of extra time when replacement Bruce Hughes provided an assist for Soromon to slot home his second goal of the match, running into the crowd to celebrate.
The match was truly sealed when Suva took advantage of the Tahitians piling bodies forward and Dave Radrigai broke clear and went coast to coast, drawing Decoret off his line and slipping the ball to replacement Merrill Nand to tap home the easiest of goals.
The game finished on an unsavoury note with pushing and shoving as frustrations boiled over.
Suva FC coach Maxwell Thaggard was quick to implore his players to retreat to the dugout to avoid any further yellows or reds with a final beckoning.
Saturday’s final will determine who represents the Oceania region at the FIFA Club World Cup in Saudi Arabia this December, the final seven-team event before the tournament is expanded to 32 teams in 2025.
AS Pirae: 2 (Tamatoa TETAUIRA 55’, Ariiura LABASTE 89’)
Suva FC: 4 (Simione NABENU 14’, Azariah SOROMON 47’, 105 + 1’, Merrill NAND 116’)