The third edition of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) O-League kicks off on Sunday with two highly anticipated matchups in New Zealand and Fiji.
The only two sides to have won the O-League - current champions Waitakere United and inaugural O-League winners Auckland City FC -will open their campaign at Kiwitea St in Auckland, while Solomon Island champions Koloale FC travel to Ba to make their competition debut.
Koloale FC also of the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea side Hekari Souths United FC and Port Vila Sharks of Vanuatu are the new additions to the six-team 2009 tournament with the latter completing arguably the most demanding group along with Auckland and Waitakere.
The 2008 O-League champions Waitakere United are in the midst of preparing for the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in December, but the importance of the season opener is not lost on Coach Chris Milicich who has been preparing for this match for eight weeks.
"The importance can't be underemphasised, it's a game where a win can provide a huge jump on the other team and could create a huge problem to catch them," Milicich said. "They key is to get a good result, whether that's a draw away from home or a win we'll take it."
Help from abroad
Both sides have looked abroad to strengthen their squads with Auckland boasting ten different nationalities in their squad and Waitakere six.
Arguably Auckland's greatest acquisition is former New Zealand international defender Ivan Vicelich, returning home after eight seasons of professional football abroad. He will likely form a defensive partnership with Spanish signing Xavi Roca who has had stints at Barcelona and Villarreal.
Not to be outdone, Waitakere have signed Brazilian midfield ace Adriano Pimenta, who has played in the UEFA cup with Swiss outfit FC Thun - to boost their midfield and help feed the attacking threat of Solomon Island international Benjamin Totori and Fijian Roy Krishna up front.
Waitakere held the upper hand in last season's O-League encounters, securing a 1-0 win away from home courtesy of an Allan Pearce header, before holding Auckland to a 1-1 draw at the Trusts Stadium. The victory guaranteed them a place in the 2008 O-League finals with Kossa FC.
Auckland City FC Coach Colin Tuaa is expecting a typical "arm wrestle" match between the two sides and is optimistic of "a little bit of football in between."
"It is vital to get a good start on Sunday for our confidence and to get some momentum going both for the O-League and heading into the NZF," the coach said. "We are very ambitious and clear in what we want this season, to make the O-league playoffs and win back the NZFC title and we have recruited a squad capable of doing that.
"I would ideally like to have another three or four competitive games under the belt but I'm happy where we are," he added.
Tuaa is familiar with Waitakere's style of play and said his side are well prepared to deal with their threat. "They have quality players up front and a very rugged midfield which we need to be able to combat. I'm very confident we can do both and come out on top.
In the Group B opener Koloale will be looking to follow in the footsteps of last year's Solomon Island champions Kossa FC, who made it all the way to the grand final before succumbing to Waitakere 6-3 on aggregate.
The O-League final first leg in at Lawson Tama Stadium in Honiara drew a crowd of over 20,000 and Koloale will be looking for the same support from the Solomon Island faithful when they host their games at the same venue.
But first they must focus on a difficult season opener against experienced Fijian champions Ba at Govind Park. Malakai Tiwa will lead a side packed full of Fijian internationals in front of the passionate Ba faithful and Koloale will need the best out of experienced professional striker Henry Faarodo to unlock their defence.