Auckland City survived the biggest scare in their long domination of the OFC Champions League when they needed a penalty shoot-out to beat 10-man Ifira Black Bird in their semi-final.
In a game packed with thrills, incidents and fine football, the teams were tied 2-2 at the end of 90 minutes, but only after two goals from substitute Ryan De Vries rescued his team from a shock defeat.
His equaliser four minutes into stoppage time sent the game into extra time.
Unable to break their deadlock, the teams went to penalties which Auckland City won 5-4.
This means City will play Suva in Saturday’s final after the Fijian club beat AS Pirae 4-2 after extra time in the other semi-final.
Main photo: Relieved Auckland City players rush to goalkeeper Conor Tracey after his penalty save sends the team into Saturday’s final.
Roared on by a vocal home crowd, the Vanuatu club champions had taken the game to Auckland City in the early stages, and it took every ounce of the Navy Blues’ experience and fitness to overhaul Ifira.
Ifira’s left back Kerry Iawak put his side in front after 41 minutes when he was able to get on the end of a low cross that eluded six Auckland City defenders, enabling him to smash it past goalkeeper Conor Tracey.
The Ifira players piled on Iawak as they celebrated en masse in front of the Freshwater Stadium crowd of more than 5,000.
By half-time, it was clear Auckland City faced the biggest challenge in their long dominance of the region’s premier competition.
Ifira extended their lead to two goals after an hour when the City defence failed to cope with a cross into the box and Godine Tenene was able to head into the net from close range.
Then came the two plays that turned the game.
First, in the 69th minute, De Vries got a touch on the end of a Cam Howieson free kick to divert it past Ifira ‘keeper Andreas Duch.
The crowd fell silent; the City players did not waste time on celebrations, racing back to the halfway line for the restart.
In the 74th minute, the referee booked Ifira’s Timothy Boulet and after a couple of minutes’ confusion, the fourth official conveyed the fact it was his second yellow card.
Off he went, leaving the home side to fend with 10 players.
The Navy Blues pushed forward at every opportunity, keeping the ball in play and relying on their coach’s belief that they would be the fitter of the two teams.
Striker Angus Kilkolly forced an excellent reflex save from Duch. A City effort bounced off the crossbar.
The pressure was telling on Ifira as their fans urged them on.
The fourth official signalled there would be eight minutes of stoppage time.
In the fourth of those minutes, De Vries found an equaliser when Duch was unable to hold a Howieson cross, and the ball fell kindly for the City striker.
The game went into extra time.
In the first spell of added time, substitute Tong Zhou almost put City ahead when he smashed a shot from 30 metres, his shot careering off the bar.
Late in the second half of extra time, City got the ball into the Ifira box and it rattled between players as if it was in a bagatelle, producing a rapid set of half-chances. Somehow, the ball stayed out of the net.
The last act of extra time was when Ifira captain Samuel Kaloros cleared an Auckland City effort off the line.
In the penalty shoot-out, Auckland City’s Michael Den Heijer, Tong Zhou, Angus Kilkolly, Cam Howieson and Jordan Vale all found the net.
Ifira’s Lee Taiwia, Godine Tenene, John Wahale and Jordy Tasip all scored from the spot.
Ifira’s fifth penalty taker, Thomas Napakaurana, struck the ball well but City goalkeeper Tracey’s trailing legs deflected the ball up and away from the net.
City had survived, winning by the barest of margins, in one of the games that will be long remembered in Oceania and certainly in Vanuatu.
Ifira Black Bird
Watch OFC’s stream of the game here:
Games played on Wednesday May 24, 2023
Auckland City 2 (Ryan De Vries 69′, 90+3′)
Ifira Black Bird 2 (Kerry Iawak 41′, Godine Tenene 60′)
*Auckland win 5-4 on penalties after extra time.
Game to be played on Wednesday May 24, 2023
Suva 4 (Simione Nabenu 14’, Azariah Soromon 47’, 105 + 1’, Merrill Nand 116’)
AS Pirae 2 (Tamatoa Tetauira 55’, Ariiura Labaste 89’)
*After extra time; score 2-2 after 90 mins.