Auckland City FC were crowned Oceania champions for the sixth successive time on Saturday. It is an all-time record for any continental club competition, and the Navy Blues seem well placed to continue their local hegemony into the future.
Recent years have seen Auckland pushed all the way. Last season the New Zealanders won the title via the lottery of penalties, while the previous year they narrowly scraped into the semi-finals by virtue of being the best runner-up in the group stage. This year the final against Team Wellington – unlike 12 months earlier against the same opponent – was a one-sided affair. Indeed the record books will suggest Auckland cruised to the 2016 title. The reality, of course, was not quite so clear cut.
Aside from January’s four-team preliminary competition, the OFC Champions League was compacted into a two-week event held in a single location – a format introduced for last season’s competition. Auckland was the host this time around, with the 12-team competition including representatives from eight Oceania Member Associations. Adding to the rich reward on offer, was the additional carrot of a ticket to the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2016.
*Duo make most of local conditions *
Auckland started as warm favourites. despite the absence of evergreen central defender Ivan Vicelich. The club’s seemingly indestructible captain succumbed to injury and missed the entire tournament. Auckland City topped Group A with victories over Lae City Dwellers, Solomon Warriors and Amicale, before beating AS Tefana 4-2 in the semi-final to book their place in the final.
Team Wellington - having stunningly ended Auckland’s long unbeaten domestic run to win the New Zealand title earlier in the year - endured a more arduous campaign than might have been expected based on recent form. They failed to score before half-time in four of their five games, and needed a come-from-behind performance to see off New Caledonia’s AS Lossi.
The club from New Zealand’s capital then battled their way past another New Caledonian side, AS Magenta, though it required a late Tom Jackson brace to do so. Semi-final day thus proved a triumph for local sides at the expense of Francophone opposition.
The tournament offered entertainment throughout with only a handful of blowout scorelines, despite an average of some four goals per match. Rarely has a football match been more dramatic than the group-stage encounter between preliminary qualifiers Kiwi FC against Fiji’s Nadi. The contest produced seven goals and, incredibly, almost as many red cards. Both sides ended with just eight players, while Nadi triumphed by the odd goal in seven, despite being behind deep into injury time, as the Samoans seemed set for their first ever win in the main competition.
*Familiar trek to Japan *
Unlike last season, Auckland dominated the final against their compatriots. Fleet-footed Solomon Islander Micah Lea’alafa scored twice, while young midfielder Clayton Lewis was also on the scoresheet in a 3-0 scoreline. "We are really happy because there has been so much hard work from the team and the staff, (and) now we are going to Japan again," said captain Angel Berlanga.
Auckland can now begin putting in place preparations for another trip to Japan, and a record eighth appearance at the FIFA Club World Cup. The Navy Blues have ticked off several highlights at the Club World Cup over the years, but none more so than their stirring run at Morocco 2014, in which South American champions San Lorenzo needed extra time to deny the Kiwis a near-unthinkable final match-up against Real Madrid.
It was yet another title for Auckland’s long-serving coach Ramon Tribulietx, and the Spaniard suggested that losing the recent domestic final may have provided added incentive. "It feels good, coming from losing a final against them in a (domestic) competition we dominated," Tribulietx said. "We had that extra little bit of motivation.”
Lea’alafa proved to be a star for the Navy Blues and, having contributed four crucial goals, he was named the tournament’s best player. Team-mate Joao Moreira finished as top-scorer with five goals.