The road to continental glory in Oceania kicks-off this weekend with the opening round in the new-look OFC Champions League. Eight clubs will be vying to be crowned the confederation’s best with qualification for the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013 an added incentive.
This year the competition - formerly known as the OFC O-League - has been compacted into a seven-week period, having previously been staggered over six months. Two-legged semi-finals will be played and, unlike in recent seasons, the final will be a stand-alone match, with the venue pre-designated to be held in Auckland, New Zealand.
Auckland’s two representatives – Auckland City and Waitakere United – will be eyeing a home city final having shared five of the six titles since a renewed format was established in 2007, in the wake of Australia joining the Asian Football Confederation. The other six competitors are Amicale (Vanuatu), Ba (Fiji), AS Dragon (Tahiti), Hekari United (Papua New Guinea), AS Mont-Dore (New Caledonia) and Solomon Warriors (Solomon Islands).
Despite the condensed nature of this season’s competition, the journey to the Auckland finale commenced way back prior to last season’s decider. For the first time since the 2007/08 season a full preliminary round was held, featuring representatives of four Polynesian nations. Cook Islands outfit Tupapa Maraerenga eventually prevailed against the champions of American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga, only to then fail in their bid to reach the group stage with a 3-1 play-off defeat against experienced campaigners Mont-Dore.
Melanesian hopefuls line up
An intriguing quartet comprises Group A which boasts a distinct Melanesian feel. Stand out names are 2011 finalists Amicale, and the only team to break the New Zealand hegemony – Hekari United. However the remaining pair – Ba and Solomon Warriors – are also likely to be hugely influential in the outcome of the group.
Hekari open their campaign with a contest against the equally ambitious Ba. After narrowly missing last season’s final, Hekari will be aiming to revive their title-winning spirit from three years ago. Their line-up will again feature a number of imports, notably from Solomon Islands, and rather ironically, given their opening day opponents, from Fiji.
A similar scenario will play out in Honiara as Solomon Warriors host Amicale, who have half a dozen Solomon Islanders in their multi-national squad. Amicale coach Richard Iwai, a renowned former Vanuatu international, has also cast his recruitment net far and wide, signing up players from Australia, Senegal and France. The home side are well prepared under New Zealand coach Brendan Crichton and comfortably defeated the Solomon Islands national team prior to their recent FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers.
Francophone duo challenge Kiwi domination
Group B pits the two New Zealand representatives alongside AS Dragon and AS Mont-Dore of French-speaking nations Tahiti and New Caledonia. The match-ups will, to a degree, reprise a strong recent rivalry with New Zealand surpringly beaten to the OFC Nations Cup title last year by Tahiti, while the All Whites edged out New Caledonia last week to win the Oceania zone in the race for Brazil 2014 qualifying.
Debutants Dragon arguably face the toughest challenge of the opening round with an away trip to Waitakere. Although founded in 1968 to primarily represent French Polynesia’s Chinese community, the club now has a diverse mix of players and support. They also boast more than a dozen national team players with the likes of national team skipper Nicolas Vallar and brothers Jonathan and Teaonui Tehau set to feature at the FIFA Confederations Cup in June. Dragon’s maiden challenge, however, could not be tougher with Waitakere recently claiming the domestic title after a goal-laden winning run.
Waitakere’s crosstown rivals, Auckland, open with a tough trip to Noumea and a meeting with Mont-Dore. In contrast to most of their opponents, the almost perennial New Caledonian champions have an entirely local team, headed by national team captain Olivier Dokunengo. Auckland, on the other hand, have experience to burn, most notably evergreen skipper Ivan Vicelich and the team’s growing Spanish contingent brought in by coach Ramon Tribulietx. Despite Waitakere’s form on the home front, few would confidently bet against champions Auckland City retaining their continental crown and returning to the FIFA Club World Cup for a third successive year.