Hosts Erakor Golden Star edged past a spirited Kiwi FC side from Samoa to emulate the feat of defending champions Team Wellington who earlier overcame a well organised Ba FC from Fiji to share top spot in Group C at the conclusion of the opening match day of the OFC Champions League 2019 tournament at Port Vila’s Korman Stadium.
Team Wellington’s title defence could not have started any better as the men from the New Zealand capital stamped their mark early with a period of controlled possession to move Ba around the pitch, with playmakers Mario Illich and Aaron Clapham in particular dictating terms.
After nine minutes, a killer ball from Nathan Hailemariam unlocked Ross Allen, whose cutback was steered home by Aaron Clapham to give the reigning champions an early advantage.
Allen went from provider to finisher eight minutes later with a predatory strike after instinctively pouncing on a poor defensive clearance to beat Ba keeper Josaia Ratu.
The sweltering conditions started to take their toll, with a noticeable drop in tempo and despite the occasional attacking probe from the ‘Men in Black’, Jose Figueira’s men went to the break with their two goal lead intact.
Ba emerged for the second spell a different team, signalling their intent with an enterprising opening 15 minutes.
Their best chance of the half came when Ratu Dau forced an outstanding save from Scott Basalaj, after getting the better of the retreating Illich.
Thereafter Wellington were able to soak up the pressure, looking to strike on the break via direct balls into hard running target man Angus Kilkolly but despite creating numerous chances, they were unable to add to the scoreline.
Team Wellington coach Jose Figueira was delighted with his players’ effort.
“Perfect start for my team, the first game is always so difficult, especially when we are travelling. I thought today the attitude was number one and professionalism was number two so very happy with the start,” he explained.
“You always want to start the game quickly and we did exactly that today and from there we could control the game and manage and the pressure goes onto the other team.
“Ba had a very good start to the second half, made life very difficult, but when we dealt with that we maybe could have got a couple of more goals, but look very happy today,” added the Team Wellington coach.
His Fijian counterpart Ronil Kumar meanwhile, was left to rue their lacklustre start to the match.
“We were too defensive at first and that’s the reason why we conceded two early goals, we didn’t press enough, but we talked with the boys in the break and told them to go back to our game plan in the second half, so from there on they executed the way we wanted play from the start.
“Overall I’m happy with my team’s performance, they really worked hard, and especially in the second half they really played the way we planned to play, only the goal didn’t come unfortunately for us, but the boys played really well,” said the Ba coach.
In the second Group C match on the opening day Erakor Golden Star were able to exploit Kiwi FC in wide areas early on, but squandered numerous chances through some errant finishing by Elias Silvar Junior and the otherwise excellent Barrry Mansale.
That theme continued for the remainder of the first half, as the Kiwi defence, marshalled by the outstanding Andrew Setafano, grew into the game.
The passionate and vocal local crowd in their thousands grew increasingly frustrated as the home favourites searched for a goal that would reward their dominance, but the teams went into the break all square.
Pressure was relieved in the 58th minute when Mansale was able to spring the offside trap to square for Elias to finish into an empty net.
Newly injected substitute Jacky Ruben made it two 12 minutes later after firing home following another Kaltfer Kaltack raid down the left hand flank.
The game petered out as injuries started to take their toll on a gallant Kiwi side, who were able to take a number of positives from their solid defensive effort.
Erakor coach Benjamin Noel admitted it was a relief to notch up a hard-fought victory against the suborn Samoan visitors.
“We have three points no after a very good game against Kiwi, we thank them for their good performance today because they also played really well, they were really tough.
“We did face some challenges against them but I think this will help us to take the remaining matches of this tournament very seriously,’ Noel insisted.
“The first half we were poor but we improved in the second period, we pressed higher and tried to use our combinations up front but we will need to work on our finishing which was a problem, we learned that we will have to improve the way we combine in front of goal,” he added.
Menawhile, Kiwi FC Assistant coach Ansheil Kumar said his young players will take plenty of positives from their spirited performance despite the defeat.
“We knew that Erakor was the home team and they were well prepared for this and they had the home advantage and as far as our team goes we were a bit undermanned with a small squad of players but we still gave our best, so we are happy with the result.
“I’m really proud of my players, obviously most of them are really young some of them are as young as 16, others are 18 and 19, and for some of them this is their first OFC Champions League tournament so we are happy with both the result and the performance,” said the Kiwi FC assistant coach.