Had it not been for Joao Moreira’s belated intervention for the defending champions, both games would have ended in 1-1 draws and thrown Group A wide open. That goal could therefore prove crucial as Auckland will now be favourites to finish top, although Amicale can still do so if they beat the New Zealanders in the group’s all-important final game on Sunday.
Solomon Warriors now have no such hopes but very nearly kept themselves in the running by taking a second-half lead against Amicale and hanging on until time was nearly up on the clock.
Amicale were favoured to take the points going into the contest as they had swept aside Lae 3-0 in their first match while Warriors fell to a 4-0 loss at the hands of Auckland City.
But they could find no way past the Warriors defence in a scrappy first half, during which both sides struggled to put any flowing moves together and failed to create many clear-cut chances.
After shipping four goals in their opening game, Warriors would have been pleased to get into the sheds at nil-all and it got even better for the Solomon Islanders after the break, Dennis Ifunoa putting them ahead from close range in the 53rd minute.
They made it through to the closing stages of the game with that slender lead intact but, sensing their semi-final dreams slipping away, it was then that Amicale really began to pile on the pressure. The Vanuatu side laid siege to the Warriors goal in the final ten minutes and were finally rewarded in stoppage time as Giorgio Bertacchi left goalkeeper Anthony Talo stranded in hitting home a free kick.
Talo did manage to come to his team’s rescue just moments later though, saving a Diego Nadaya header at point-blank distance to preserve Warriors’ point.
Coach Moses Toata was disappointed not to take all three but was able to claim a moral victory.
“We actually won the game in the 90 minutes so it’s unfortunate that Amicale managed to equalise after that,” he said.
“We went into the game knowing we could win but it didn’t go our way. I would like to thank all of our boys though because they were fantastic today.”
Counterpart Mauro Bertoni felt his charges would have earned a comfortable win if they had made better use of their opportunities.
“We dominated the second half and created a lot of chances,” he said.
“I think they took just one shot on our goal and they scored. We tried at least ten times and just couldn’t score – but that’s football sometimes.”
The day’s second match surely had little chance of surpassing the excitement of such a dramatic finish but Auckland City and Lae City Dwellers somehow conspired to achieve just that.
After struggling to make an impression in the 3-0 loss to Amicale – their debut appearance at this level – Lae were expected to be little more than cannon fodder for Auckland, who are regarded as the bench mark side in these parts after claiming the Oceania title five times in a row.
But any thoughts this would be a cruisy afternoon for the reigning champions were soon dispelled as Lae kept them scoreless for over an hour, the resistance finally being broken on 65 minutes when Daewook Kim poked the ball over the line after Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi had flung himself at a Clayton Lewis free kick.
In keeping with their patient style, Auckland had enjoyed the lion’s share of the possession and most onlookers would have put money on them to go on and score several more in the closing stages, as is often the case after their constant passing has wearied the opposition.
But Lae showed good fitness and concentration levels to stay in the game and it was instead the Papua New Guineans who scored next. The goal was certainly worth waiting for when it finally arrived in the 85th minute, Raymond Gunemba making Auckland goalkeeper Diego Rivas pay for the giving away of an indirect free kick in the box by curling a perfectly-placed shot into the far corner.
With time almost up, it looked like Lae had done enough to make history by snatching an unlikely point but Auckland then exhibited the never-say-die attitude of champions to grab a last-gasp winner.
It was a well-constructed move that created the opportunity, Auckland showing their trademark composure to work the ball upfield before Lewis released Moreira with a pin-point through ball and the Portuguese striker did the rest, rounding the advancing Ronald Warisan before rolling his effort in from a testing angle.
Auckland coach Ramon Tribulietx was relieved to have seen off such a spirited challenge.
“It was a very tense match,” he said.
“We had some chances in the second half and it was just one of those days when it didn’t want to go in. Then they had one opportunity and they scored it,” he added.
“In the end, we scrambled to score that goal and I was very happy with the attitude of the guys when we conceded. We stayed strong and in five minutes we created a couple of chances and managed to win the game.”
Despite having such a memorable result snatched from his grasp, Lae coach Peter Gunemba was not bitter about the outcome and felt his players did all they could.
“I was very pleased with the performance of the boys to keep it to nil-all at half-time,” he said.
“I was expecting it to be anyone’s game in the second half and it was unlucky that we lost. But the boys feel happy because we learned something against the champions.”
The OFC Champions League takes a break tomorrow before returning to QBE Stadium on Friday with a pair of games in Group C, Nadi FA taking on AS Magenta from 1pm before AS Tefana meet Kiwi FC at 3.30pm.
Story courtesy of OFC. For more on the Champions League visit www.oceaniafootball.com