New Zealand’s big guns are again the teams to beat in Oceania’s Champions League
Barring something totally unforeseen, this season’s Oceania Champions’ League will replicate the previous three, with New Zealand rivals Waitakere United and Auckland City comfortably eclipsing their Pacific islands opponents.
The latest edition has been expanded from six teams to eight, yet the format remains the same with a preliminary phase is which the participants are divided equally into two sections to play each other home and away. The winners of the groups then contest the two legged final.
The Kiwi pair are again placed in the same group and, as previously, look equally strong on paper.
City will be without two seasoned campaigners, the released Solomon Islands defender George Suri and retired goalkeeper Ross Nicholson, but have persuaded Paul Posa to remain as coach. He now has two assistants and, presumably, a lighter workload.
Having acquired the services of several accomplished locals in the close season, the holders promise a vigourous defence of their crown.
Waitakere also lost valued experience when Danny Hay and Jonathan Perry hung up their boots and have been just as busy in securing replacement talent. The most intriguing signing is 34 year old Martin Bullock, who boasts English Premier League appearances with Barnsley.
United’s newly appointed coach Neil Emblen, four years Bullock’s senior, may well occasionally appear alongside him in midfield, though young striker Roy Krisna should prove a more influential figure. He returns, despite been given lengthy trials at Australian A League clubs Wellington Phoenix and North Queensland Fury.
Neither of the two other teams in the New Zealanders’ section with be causing them any sleepless nights. Both were unconvincing whilst winning their respective domestic competitions.
Magenta originally finished third in New Caledonia’s National Championship, then lodged a protest claiming table toppers Kirikitr had fielded an unregistered player, Patrick Wajoka, for the entire campaign. The protest was upheld, each of Kirikitr’s fixtures recorded as 3 – 0 losses and, consequently, Magenta were elevated to first!
The Noumea outfit include in their ranks two genuinely gifted footballers in Michel Hmae and Pierre Wajoka (Patrick’s brother), however have little depth and it will be a huge surprise if they emulate the 2005 combination which reached the final of the Oceania Champions’ League’s forerunner, the Oceania Club Championship.
Manu Ura ended the Tahitian League’s regular season 12 points behind Tefana, then pipped them by a single point in the play offs.
The Mauves have commenced the current domestic term with four successive wins and can call upon seven Tahitian national squad members. Though they will be a worrying proposition at Papeete, it is hard envisaging them picking up many points when travelling.
Away points will be at a premium in the opposite pool, where Lautoka, Hekari United, Honiara Marist and Tafea seem even in their mediocrity at Champions’ League level.
Lautoka are buoyed by having won a first Fijian League title in 21 years with an unbeaten record. However, the effects of coach Dennis Singh’s dismissal for, according to Lautoka officials, “subordination” can merely be speculated upon. Even so, all Fiji fans expect far greater commitment than that displayed by a fading Ba last year.
Just failing to make the 2008-2009 decider when debuting, Hekari are confident of going one better this time around. They have strengthened their squad with three well performed Fijians, but bid farewell to striker Abraham Iniga. He has returned to his native land and bolstered the surprise 2009 Solomon Islands champions, Marist.
Last season’s Champions’ League beaten finalists Koloale were overwhelming favourites to defeat Marist in the National Club Championship final, before having a man sent off and battling for almost an hour with ten men.
A 77th minute Michael Patiti goal secured victory for Marist, which only qualified for the nationwide tournament when a provincial team withdrew. Otherwise they would have featured in a play off determining Honiara’s fifth representative.
With Iniga amongst several internationals signed since then, Marist are obviously determined to surpass a disappointing 2007 performance and become the third successive finalist produced by the Solomons.
Vanuatu has discontinued its policy of fielding regional selections in the competition and will be represented by the Tafea club. After clinching a fifteenth Port Vila League title in a row, Tafea claimed the Bred Cup with a 4-1 win over Luganville’s Vaum United and the right to be their nation’s standard bearers.
Nine Tafea players appeared in the Port Vila Sharks line-up hammered 8-1 by Auckland City eight months ago and a similar humiliation can’t be discounted if the two meet again.
And, so difficult to separate are City and Waitakere in one pool and the four Melanesian sides on their side of the draw, such a scenario is definitely possible.