The third edition of the OFC O-League seems set to go down to the wire with five of the six competing teams still a realistic chance of reaching the final, following a tense penultimate round of group matches on the weekend.
Reigning champions and FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2008 contestants, Waitakere United have a significant task ahead of them despite narrowly seeing off Vanuatu's Port Vila Sharks, who are the only club out of contention for the 2009 title. The 3-2 win in Port Vila was not enough to overhaul cross-town rivals Auckland City on goal difference in the Group A standings.
The scene is now set for a titanic struggle in the final match as Waitakere must knock over their near-neighbours or relinquish their claim as the only club to have won the title since the current format of the Oceania club decider was introduced two years ago.
The other group is equally well-poised with Papua New Guinea's Hekari Souths United taking a shock lead at the head of the standings after a hard-earned 1-0 win over Solomon Islands' champions Koloale FC. The result leaves Koloale and Fijian heavyweights Ba left to do battle with the winner's prize being a berth in the continental showpiece. A draw however would leave Hekari as group winners, and such a stalemate could not be ruled out given the two final matchday combatants played out a scoreless draw in the group opener last year.
Champions under challenge
Waitakere's bid to retain their crown continued with their narrow win over the Vanuatu champions in humid conditions at the Municipal Stadium in Port Vila, however the goal avalanche they required to surpass Auckland on the ladder never looked like eventuating. Despite failing to collect a point in their campaign, Port Vila proved good value against Waitakere, holding the runaway New Zealand championship leaders and reigning Oceania champions until former Leeds United Danny Hay headed home with 15 minutes remaining.
Moise Poida and Francois Sakama had twice drawn the home side level, to cancel out goals from Christopher Bale and Paul Seaman, scorer of the club's goal last December against Adelaide United in Japan. Waitakere coach Chris Milicich said he was "just happy to get the points," despite the attacking threat offered by the likes of Neil Emblen and Fijian young gun Roy Krishna. "We were never going to win by six or seven here, where the crowd, the pitch and the heat all work against you," said Milicich.
The match against Auckland will be played on 5 April, and if current form is any guide, it could be the same two teams lining up a week earlier in the New Zealand Championship title decider, with Auckland wrapping up second place in the domestic competition by scoring a 5-0 win over Canterbury United in their most recent outing.
A lone goal from the penalty spot by striker Kema Jack ten minutes prior to half-time proved enough to secure all three points for Hekari Souths much to the delight of 5,000 boisterous fans in Port Moresby. Cyril Muta received his second yellow card of the half in the 87th minute leaving the visitors with a numerical advantage but Hekari still managed to desperately hold on for the win. The match proved a lively affair befitting the importance of the occasion, and the quality of players on the park including Solomon's pacy attacker Henry Fa'arodo and, for the home side, Fijian hero Veresa Toma.
Heraki Souths have shown themselves to be a handful in the competition, winning their last two matches including away to Fiji's Ba. This leaves the PNG champions with a genuine chance of appearing in the final despite being the only team of the six O-League combatants to have progressed through the preliminary qualifying stage. Coach Jerry Allen, a Solomon Islander, has assembled a very strong line-up for the team from the PNG capital, featuring players from his homeland, Fiji and Vanuatu, plus a host of home grown stars spearheaded by David Muta, Andrew Lepani and goalscorer Jack.
Koloale FC will have high hopes that another large crowd at the Lawson Tama Stadium will see them home over Ba, with the Fijian visitors also looking to bring some joy to the club's supporters after disastrous floods in the region earlier this year. Unless Ba can manage a win away from home in one of the football hotbeds of the Pacific, then a debutant finalist will appear in the home and away decider to be played in April and May.