Island nations again proving their worth

The fifth edition of the OFC O-League remains wide open at the halfway point of Oceania’s premier club competition. Last season, Papua New Guinea’s Hekari United broke New Zealand’s stranglehold on the competition and the likelihood of a surprise name on the trophy going into this weekend’s fourth round of matches remains a distinct possibility.

The victor of April’s two-legged final will have the rare opportunity to rub shoulders with the world’s elite by securing passage to the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup. Hekari performed admirably at UAE 2010 just two months ago but the fact that the PNG side have been far from dominant in this season’s campaign provides evidence of an evening of the playing field across the Pacific Island nations.

Fijians on front foot
Leading the charge are Fijian champions Lautoka who sit atop Group A with seven points from their three outings to date. Vanuatu’s Amicale are a point off the pace with Hekari a further two points adrift. The Vanuatuans stunned the reigning champions on their Port Moresby home ground with a famous 2-1 win last October. Yet to get off the mark are Solomon Islanders Koloale, who seem set to continue the recent poor O-League form of representatives from one of the region’s football hotbeds.

The six-match group stage means there is little margin for error with only one team progressing to the final from each section, and but for a hard-earned point at Lautoka, the PNG glamour side would already be all but eliminated. Unbeaten Lautoka can put one foot in the final with victory this weekend over struggling Koloale, while Amicale meet Hekari in the pool’s other match.

The multi-cultural Hekari squad consists of several different nationalities including a number of Solomon Islands’ stars, but of most interest for their recent visit to Lautoka were the six Fijians in the ranks, including star national team striker Osea Vakatalesau. With the experience of Abu Dhabi 2010 still fresh in his mind, Vakatalesau is seeking a return to the world stage later this year. “We loved being there and it was amazing for us all,” he says. “I think it can be an inspiration for us going forward.

“We definitely hope that we will come back this year. I think we have shown that Oceania football is not only about New Zealand. There is a lot of talent in countries like Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Solomon Islands. Our job now is to focus on the O-League campaign - I believe we can win it again.”

Kiwis seek redemption
New Zealand’s two representatives - Auckland City and Waitakere United - have again been pitted in the same group, and once again they have been joined by French Polynesia representatives in New Caledonia’s AS Magenta and AS Tefana of Tahiti.

The two Kiwis sides sit joint-top, each having collected a win and two draws, although just a point behind are Magenta with the perennial O-League participants determined not to let the group become a two-horse race. A 1-1 draw at home in their most recent outing against two-time champions Waitakere proving they can be more than just nuisance value. Auckland City, meanwhile, could only claim the same result when they faced Tefana on the artificial surface at Stade Louis Ganivet in the Tahitian capital of Papeete.

This weekend marks Waitakere’s chance to move ahead of their city rivals when they take their turn to visit Tahiti. The fact that Auckland City’s weekend visit to New Caledonia has been postponed means three points will be doubly important for Waitakere player-coach Neil Emblen. Runaway leaders in the New Zealand Football Championship, Waitakere can take an important stride towards qualification for the final with victory.