The sixth edition of the OFC O-League will commence this weekend with much focus, as always, on the ability of the Pacific Island clubs to break New Zealand’s stranglehold on the competition. Only once has that occurred, with Papua New Guinea’s Hekari United capping a stunning run from obscurity to claim the honour in 2010.
However, the task of cracking New Zealand’s dominance will, in theory, be all the more harder this time around with their two representatives – Auckland City and Waitakere United – split across the two groups for the first time in the competition’s history.
As with previous editions of the tournament there will be two groups of four teams eyeing continental glory, and with it the chance to represent Oceania at the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup. The group matches will be spread across the coming five months, with the two-legged final to take place in April and May.
Champions under challenge
Reigning champions Auckland City head up Group B and, after a comprehensive victory against Vanuatu’s Amicale in last year’s decider, they appear to have strengthened further in the off-season. One-time Sporting Gijon midfielder Andreu Guerao has joined from Polonia Warsaw, where he will link with a trio of Spaniards led by attacking midfielder Manel Exposito. The vast experience of New Zealand’s most capped international Ivan Vicelich, and fellow 2010 FIFA World Cup™ squad member Dave Mulligan, will again be invaluable.
The first match of the campaign will arguably be their most difficult. Koloale, who missed last year’s final by a single point, will host the Kiwis at their Lawson Tama stadium, which is expected to have its capacity of approximately 20,000 tested throughout the campaign. Local hopes have been boosted by new signing James Naka, with the midfielder playing a leading role as the Solomon Islands finished runners-up at the 2011 Pacific Games. Joses Nawo and the vastly experienced Henry Fa’arodo are just some of the other attacking options that will provide typical Solomons flair.
Completing the group, arguably the toughest of the two, are former champions Hekari and last season’s runners-up Amicale. The ambitious Hekari will be keen to re-establish themselves on the continental stage after last season’s bottom-placed group finish. Amicale have retained most of last season’s roster, with Luke Eroi’s charges certain to be richer for the experience of winning through to the 2011 decider. Much focus too will be on their spearhead Fenedy Masauvakalo, whose eight strikes took him to the top of the competition’s goalscoring charts.
Two-time champs seek Pacific solution
Waitakere United will lead the charge in the other group seeking to overturn last season’s disappointment of a group stage exit. Two-time winners Waitakere have a proud history in the competition, although their last title was in 2008. Nevertheless, the west Aucklanders won both major pieces of domestic silverware last season, and promising young Solomons striker Gagame Feni will join Fijian hot-shot Roy Krishna in an intriguing all-Pacific attack for the club.
Fijian champions Ba return to the O-League after a two-year absence. The Men in Black made it all the way to the final in 2007 only to lose to Waitakere on away goals. Ba have a plethora of Fijian internationals at their disposal, highlighted by defender Alvin Singh, who featured for Hekari at the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup, and prolific striker Osea Vakatalesau.
The group also includes the French Polynesian duo of Tahiti’s AS Tefana and New Caledonia’s Mont-Dore. The latter are making their first continental appearance in four years and will perhaps be boosted by New Caledonia’s successful hosting, and winning, of this year’s Pacific Games. Tefana are competing in their second successive O-League campaign and, while they finished at the foot of their group last time around, they indicated their potential with a stunning victory against Waitakere and a draw with eventual champions Auckland City.