New Zealand's Waitakere United yesterday set themselves up for a shot at the FIFA Club World Cup 2007 by narrowly beating Fijian champions Ba to the inaugural O-League title.

Victory in Oceania's new continental championship, the successor to the OFC Champions League, will see the West Aucklanders' represent their confederation in Japan, although this year's edition will be the first in which they will face a play-off against the J.League champions to determine which of the two advances to face the five other continental champions.

That sort of challenge is unlikely to faze a Waitakere side who yesterday confirmed their battling credentials beyond doubt in squeezing past their impressive Fijian opponents despite being reduced to just nine men thanks to second half dismissals for defenders George Suri and Craig Wylie. Ba had gone into yesterday's second leg holding a 2-1 advantage, but it was the Kiwi outfit's solitary away goal that transpired to be crucial as they chalked up a 1-0 home win at the Mount Smart Stadium to advance.

Utting the hero
The goal that ultimately sealed Ba's fate came just four minutes after Suri had seen red, with Allan Pearce heading gleefully into an unguarded net after the Fijians' goalkeeper Laisenia Tuba had misjudged the flight of a Jeff Campbell free-kick.

Before and after that moment, the expectant 9,000 crowd were forced to endure large periods during which the visitors dominated possession, but the home side found an unlikely hero in goalkeeper and man of the match Michael Utting, who pulled off a string of superb saves to keep Ba at bay. The game could even prove to be the veteran keeper's last, with Utting admitting that the temptation to go out on a high after a season spent battling injuries is already proving strong.

"I said to Steve (Cain, Waitakere coach) before kick-off, 90 more minutes and I can have a nice break from it all and possibly not play again," he said. "I've really battled with injuries all season. I'm 37 next month and about 15 kilos overweight, so to get to today was a real reward. I don't remember too much about the saves. I switch off during games but it was nice to play a big part."

'Painful lessons'
But for Utting's defiant performance, Ba would surely have gone on to represent Oceania in that Japan 2007 play-off, but their coach Yogendra Dutt was in philosophical mood afterwards as he assessed this cruellest of reverses.

"It is difficult for us to accept the pain of defeat but this is not the end of the road for us," he said. "In life you must accept painful lessons sometimes and use them to move forward. That is what we will do."

For Dutt's Waitakere counterpart, Cain, on the other hand, there was only relief, particularly as the O-League final had come hot on the heels of a demoralising 3-2 defeat to Auckland City in the NZFC equivalent.

"We deserved something from this season," said Cain. "We've dominated the domestic game. We let ourselves down in the NZFC Final but we were determined not to let that happen again. We were worried at half time though. The pattern was the same as in Fiji but they dominated more here. We knew we could turn it around and I think our experience and the fact that we play at a higher standard week in and week out stood to us. But all credit to (Ba), they were better than I expected them to be - a lot better."