With semi-final qualification dangling in front of Team Wellington and Ba FC, Group B of the OFC Champions League goes down to the wire on match day three in in Koné, New Caledonia on Saturday evening.
After gaining the full complement of points from their first two matches, Wellington need just a draw from their clash against the Fijian champions to confirm a place in the final four for the third year running.
The equation is tougher for Ba who trail the Kiwi club by two points and must win at Stade Yoshida to claim the sole semi-final place on offer to Group B in this season’s expanded competition.
“It’s a do or die match because the team that wins will qualify,” said Ba coach Imdad Ali.
“It means a lot for me, it means a lot for my boys, it means a lot for our country because we are not only representing Ba, we are also representing Fiji.”
Team Wellington have made a flying start to their OFC Champions League campaign and the two-time finalists start as slight favourites heading into Saturday’s match.
However, fully aware of the small margins for error in champions league football, as well as Ba’s never-say-die spirit, Team Wellington coach Jose Figuiera is braced for a tough battle.
“It makes the game obviously even bigger than Wednesday’s game now”, said Figuiera.
“Ba have shown a lot of quality in their last two matches and they do pose a lot of different threats to what we’re going to face.”
“The focus will remain on what we do and trying to take control of the game earlier, and hopefully get a bit more clinical in the box.”
Both coaches face selection dilemmas in the build up to the crucial clash, yet are confident they have players capable of stepping into the fray.
Ba’s Olympic Games striker Saula Waqa, the focal point of their attack in their opening two games picked up yellow cards in both his first two matches and will serve a one match suspension.
“I’ve got 19 players with me so I’ve got other strikers who can stand for him and because I’ve brought them in they are capable of doing the job,” Ali said.
Meanwhile Wellington are sweating on the fitness of Joel Stevens who limped out of the win over Hienghène with an ankle injury.
“He’s actually looking a lot better than he was on Wednesday after the game which is promising and we’ll have a training run today to get a better idea if he’ll be able to take part,” Figuiera said.
“But in saying that Nathaniel Hailemariam came on in his place did a fantastic job so that gives us a good option in case he’s not ready.”
In the final encounter of Group B, pride will be on the line as competition debutants Hienghène Sport and Puaikura FC go look to finish their respective OFC Champions League campaigns on a positive note.
Group hosts Hienghène conceded two goals in the last six minutes against Wellington to see their Champions League dream hopes slip away in devastating fashion and must dust themselves off for a match that has no bearing on the semi-final race.
“I remain frustrated by the Wellington result which eliminated us, in a balanced encounter where each of the two teams could have made the difference,” said Hienghène coach Felix Tagawa
“The second goal effectively decided the match and we thought it could’ve been disallowed but nevertheless I’ll be asking our defence to start higher in these situations.”
Tagawa says Puaikura present a different challenge than their first two matches.
“We will approach it as we had said at the start of the competition; we know that all matches are difficult at this level.”
“In this game we’re faced with a team that defends very low and which is tactically solid. We will have to find the solutions to counter their low defensive block.”
Puaikura took the lead in their first game before being overrun by Wellington and then went agonisingly close to snatching a point against Ba. Coach Kevin Fallon plans to use more of the squad’s younger players in their final outing but says they are still chasing their own piece of history.
“I think from our team’s point of view motivation-wise, it’s to come and get something out of it. It would be lovely to get a point,” Fallon said.
“We’ve got a few people with injuries so it’s probably going to see a few new faces take the field tomorrow. They’re very young so I’m just hoping that they can get a grip of the game and do themselves and their country proud.”
Team Wellington and Ba square off at Stade Yoshida at 5pm local time, followed by the clash between hosts Hienghène Sport and Puaikura FC at 8pm.
Team Wellington vs. Ba FC
Koné, New Caledonia
Saturday 4 March
Team Wellington [NZL]
Vital Statistics: The last time Team Wellington and Ba FC met was in the semi-final of the 2015 OFC Champions League held in Suva. Wellington beat Ba 2-0 under coach Matt Calcott.
The Players: Nathaniel Hailemariam looks the most likely candidate to replace Joel Stevens if the former Wellington Phoenix player is eventually ruled out through injury. Filling in for an absent Tom Jackson on match day one, Hailemariam started the match and scored the two of the four goals against Puaikura FC
Coach Quote: “Again the focus will remain on what we do and trying to control the game and hopefully we can be a bit more clinical in the box and get out sight a little bit earlier.”
Team Wellington: 1. Scott BASALAJ (GK), 2. Justin GULLEY, 3. Omrie SAOLELE, 4. Guillermo MORETTI, 5. Bill ROBERTSON, 6. Taylor SCHRIJVERS, 7. Leo VILLA, 8. Cole PEVERLEY, 9. Tom JACKSON, 10. Nathanael HAILEMARIAM, 11. Mario BARCIA, 12. Andy BEVIN, 13. Roland BALA, 14. Billy SCOTT, 15. Joel STEVENS, 16. Ben HARRIS, 17. Sam BLACKBURN, 18. Nicolas ZAMBRANO, 19. Joshua MARGETTS, 20. Nicholas EDGINTON, 21. Niko KIRWAN, 22. Adam MCDONALD (GK).
Coach: José FIGUEIRA (ENG)
Ba FC [FIJ]
Vital Statistics: Ba have won two of the seven games they have played against New Zealand opposition in the OFC Champions League. Both of those victories came in Ba. They beat Waitakere United 3-2 in the group stage of the 2011-12 edition and also defeated the same team 1-0 in the home leg a 2007 final ultimately they lost on away goals.
The Players: Goalkeeper Josaia RATU will be a vital player in their match against Team Wellington. The 26-year-old has already proven reliable between the sticks and was particularly impressive in the draw against Hienghène, pulling off some outstanding saves to deny the hosts.
Coach Quote: “I have seen their strategies that they’ve been using. I’ve talked to my boys during training and I will have a blackboard session as well as we make a strategy to counter what how they play.”
Ba FC: 1. Shaneel NAIDU (GK), 2. Avinesh SUWAMY, 3. Meli CODRO, 4. Manasa NAWAKULA, 5. Ronil KUMAR, 6. Suliano TAWANAKORO, 7. Samuela NABENIA, 8. Patrick RALULU, 9. Abbu Zahid SHAHEED, 10. Mavileko NAKAMA, 11. Praneel NAIDU, 12. Remueru TEKIATE, 13. Amena BOLAITAMANA, 14. Josefata NEIBULI, 15. Saula WAQA, 16. Malakai TIWA, 17. Narendra RAO, 18. Laisenia NAIOKO, 19. Jonetani NEWA, 20. Josaia RATU (GK), 21. Malakai RAKULA.
Coach: Imdad ALI (FIJ)
Puaikura FC [COK]
Vital Statistics: Puaikura were just nine minutes away from registering their first point in the group stage of the OFC Champions League before Saula Waqa struck the winner for Ba.
The Players: The experience of Hone Fowler, who missed the opener against Wellington, was instrumental in helping the Puaikura backline hold out Ba for over 80 minutes. His leadership and defensive organisation will again be pivotal against a fast counterattacking Hienghène side.
Coach Quote: We saw on Wednesday night one of the most fantastic goals you’ll ever see. I mean it was just an unbelievable goal by Kai. It got me out of my seat and that’s why we go and watch football it was such a fantastic goal. So he’s one obvious player we have to watch out for, he’s such a good player and once again another Pacific island team who are very quick all over the pitch so its going to be a big threat to us tomorrow without a doubt.
Puaikura FC: 1. Liam LITTLE (GK), 2. Jarves APERAU, 3. Anthony SAMUELA, 4. Pekay EDWARDS, 5. Paul POILA, 6. Kimiora SAMUELA, 7. Samuel COX, 8. Grover HARMON, 9. Tyrell TAHIRI, 10. Jeremias PEREZ, 11. Dwayne TIPUTOA, 12. Harlem SIMIONA, 13. Andre ESTAY, 14. Ishak MOHAMMED, 15. Junior MATANGI, 16. Hone FOWLER, 17. Paul DAY, 18. Conroy TIPUTOA.
Coach: Kevin FALLON (ENG)
Hienghène Sport vs. Puaikura FC
Koné, New Caledonia
Saturday 4 March
Hienghène Sport [NCL]
Vital Statistics: Late goals have scuppered Hienghène Sport’s maiden OFC Champions League campaign. If both of their first matches ended at the 83 minute mark they would be heading into their final match as joint leaders and with qualification in their own hands.
The Players: Drafted into the starting line-up against Wellington, current New Caledonia U-20 captain Pothin Poma added a quiet but imposing strength to the hosts’ midfield and picked the right moments to drive or distribute.
Coach Quote: “We will all come out of the competition, staff, club, players with more experience. I also congratulate my President Jean-Pierre Djaiwé (Hienghène Sport) for all the work put in place to host this event in the North, not to mention the whole organising team around the President who really did a very good job.”
Hienghène Sport: 1. Jean Yann DOUNEZECK (GK), 3. William YENTAO, 4. Pothin POMA, 5. Jordan DINET, 6. Adolphe BOAOUTHO, 7. Anthony KAI, 9. Jefferson DAHITE, 10. Miguel KAYARA, 11. Bertrand KAI, 12. Warren HOUALA, 13. Roy KAYARA, 14, Giani KAYARA, 15. Clifton KANVA, 16. Harry DINET, 18. Renaldo POINDJIAO (GK), 19. Rocky NYIKEINE (GK), 24. Rudy KAYARA, 27. George BAMY, 28. Franck SINEM, 29. Johanès BERNOL, 30. Yvanoe BAMY, 33. Iamel KABEU, 34. Yohann MERCIER.
Coach: Felix TAGAWA (FRA)