PREVIEW: Auckland City wary of threat from OFC Champions League improvers

Auckland City are ready to start their defence of their OFC Men’s Champions League title when they face Fijian club Rewa in Sunday’s tournament opener in Tahiti.

Head coach Albert Riera acknowledges the performance gap is closing between the region’s best sides and improving teams from the Oceania nations.

Last year in Vanuatu, Riera’s side suffered a semi-final scare, scoring in the last minute to force extra time against Vanuatu’s Ifira Black Bird, before overcoming Fiji’s Suva FC in the final.

The winner of this year’s OFC Champions League will represent Oceania at the new FIFA tournament, the Intercontinental Cup, later this year.

Main photo: Eight clubs will contest the OFC Men’s Champions League in Tahiti. Photo: OFC /Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

Riera is aware of the threat posed by their Group A opponents and is confident his side will deal with the pressure that comes with being favourites.

“They know how hard it is to compete at this level, in the islands against these strong teams.

“It’s nice to be here. The players don’t need to work on their day jobs so that we can focus on football, which is when they feel like they are full-time professional footballers, and that gives us extra sort of levels of concentration,” Riera said.

Watch Albert Riera’s interview

The Auckland City squad will be captained by midfielder Cam Howieson (29) who missed the first six rounds of this season’s Northern League, but who has made two appearances since.

Auckland City squad

1 Conor Tracey (Gk), 3 Adam Mitchell, 4 Christian Gray, 7 Cam Howieson (captain), 8 Gerard Garriga. 9 Angus Kilkolly, 10 Dylan Manickum, 11 Ran De Vries, 12 Regont Murati, 13 Nathan Lobo, 16 Joe Lee, 19 Liam Gillion, 21 Adam Bell, 22 Tong Zho, 23 Alfie Rogers, 24 Joe Wallis (Gk), 25 Michael Den Heijer, 27 Stipe Ukich.

Rewa’s head coach: ‘Really raring to go’

Rewa’s Rodeck Singh is the youngest head coach at this year’s tournament and is happy with the preparation his team have been through as they look to make an impression in Papeete.

“The preparation has been going well. As you said, Auckland City is not an easy team — it’s a good team, a quality side.

“We were here last in 2022, we missed out on 2023 and now back here in 2024. A couple of boys are new, the young ones and they’re really raring to go out and have the experience of participating and playing with the top teams in Oceania,” he said.

Group A’s second match on opening day sees Solomon Warriors take on 2010 champions Hekari United.

With the group promising to be a tight affair, putting down an early marker could make all the difference in the hunt for a semi-final place.

David Muta. Photo: OFC /Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

David Muta takes charge of Hekari United for the first time as head coach, having been assistant to Ericson Komeng last year in Vanuatu.

Despite his relative inexperience, Muta has no doubts his side can hit the ground running.

“The preparation was really good. I think we have a lot of time to prepare and I believe that our boys are here and they’re ready to compete,” he said.

Occupying the other bench on Saturday will be Solomon Warriors’ head coach Frank Ne’e, whose side will look to improve on their group stage exit in 2023.

Solomon Warriors were made to work hard in their National Play-off to qualify for the OFC Men’s Champions League and Ne’e is conscious of the challenge of building upon that success.

“To be a champion is hard and it’s very hard to defend the title. It’s very hard to represent the country. It’s very hard, but it’s challenging for sure. Everybody wants to beat us, but we know what we were capable of,” he said.

“After that challenge [in 2023], it motivated me to step up and to improve more in my football career as a coach. Now I’m bringing a team full of players who I will need, and I expect them to do more.”

Every match of the OFC Men’s Champions League 2024 will be streamed live and free on FIFA+.

Games to be played on Sunday May 12, 2024

Group A

Rewa v Auckland City
Stade Paea, Tahiti, 10am (NZT)

Solomon Warriors v Hekari United
Stade Paea, Tahiti, 1pm (NZT)

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