Tahitians aim to break Kiwi stranglehold

On the surface, the 2012 OFC O-League final appears to follow familiar lines, with one of New Zealand’s two traditional giants – in this case Auckland City – pitted against a Pacific Islands opponent. However, Tahiti’s AS Tefana will take their place in the two-legged affair – the opening contest takes place this Sunday in Auckland - and become the first Polynesian contestants since the tournament was relaunched five years ago. Tahiti’s AS Pirae featured in the final in 2006 in what was a previous incarnation of Oceania’s elite club competition.

Auckland City, as two-time winners and reigning champions, will undoubtedly start as strong favourites. Tefana for their part, will be looking to emulate the breakthrough achievement of Papua New Guinea’s Hekari United, who in 2010 became the first and, to date, only team from outside New Zealand to claim continental laurels. The team crowned on 12 May at the Stade Louis Ganivet in Papeete will also secure passage to the FIFA Club World Cup, as Auckland did last year.

Tahitians eye new ground
Unlike their final opponents, AS Tefana took the hard road to the final, seeing off Fiji’s Ba on the last matchday in what was a winner-takes-all contest. Nevertheless the momentum built by the Tahitians over two seasons is undeniable. Tefana finished their maiden campaign in 2011 with just one win, but that victory was an impressive debut scalp, beating the other half of New Zealand’s O-League big two, Waitakere United.

Auckland City is a very good team but I think our outsider position will actually be good for us as it allows us to play without any pressure.
AS Tefana coach Laurent Heinis

Although they finished bottom of their group, the experience garnered from that campaign has been in evidence this season with the Tahitians bagging four straight wins to reach the final. Astonishingly though, Tefana opened their campaign with a 10-0 defeat against Waitakere, setting a new O-League record scoreline. The Tahitians, however displayed their resilience, not only by seeing off the New Zealanders in the reverse fixture, but in ending their group campaign with a resounding 5-0 win over Ba to put their goal difference back into the black and, in the process, securing a coveted berth in the final. And yet regardless of what happens in the decider, Tefana will not feature on the Oceania stage next year, with AS Dragan having won Tahiti's domestic league last week.

Tefana, who will be without influential midfielder Sebastien Labayen in the opening leg due to suspension, will be mindful of their recent visits to New Zealand, which resulted in that double-digit defeat just last October, and a 5-0 loss against Auckland the year before. “We are definitely playing the role of outsiders in this game,” said coach Laurent Heinis. “We know this task will be very difficult but we will play to our strengths. Auckland City is a very good team but I think our outsider position will actually be good for us as it allows us to play without any pressure.”

Blow for favourites
Despite holding the tag of New Zealand national league favourites, Auckland City last weekend suffered a surprise semi-final elimination in what was a blow to not only their silverware aspirations, but also to their confidence ahead of the O-League decider. While Tefana are enjoying rare form at continental level, it has been a different story for Auckland, who ended their group campaign with a draw against Hekari and a 1-0 loss at Vanuatu’s Amicale.

After a stoic performance last December on the world stage at Japan 2011, Auckland coach Ramon Tribulietx says the defending champions are desperate to book a return trip to the Far East. “We are very motivated,” he said. “We had an unfortunate result on the weekend but will stand back up and give it our best shot. This is the biggest trophy on offer in Oceania and we want to make sure we win it again.”