Entertaining start for inseparable duo

Niko Kirwan lays the ball off under pressure from three Magenta players. Photo: Alain Vartane

Fans who turned up to Stade Numa Daly in Noumea on Saturday weren’t disappointed as home side AS Magenta and Team Wellington put on a right show to get the OFC Champions League semi-finals underway with a 2-2 draw.

The semi-finals are being played out over two legs – home-and-away – and despite having the respite of a follow-up match in a week, neither side could afford to be complacent.

With the vocal home crowd behind them Magenta started strong with some high pressing from the front through Didier Simane and Nicholas Marin. The speed of the match from the outset seemed to take Team Wellington by surprise as they took some time to adapt to the high press from the front.

Magenta seized their moment in the 6th minute when Kevin Nemia found himself in space and fired a low shot past goalkeeper Scott Basalaj.

It was a lead the hosts held right throughout the first half with a dominant display both on defence and attack with some excellent interplay and creative passing keeping the Wellington backline, led by Bill Robertson, on their toes.

But the visitors dealt with the pressure well and even had some periods in the first half where they looked like they might nick an equaliser and were quite unlucky not to.

The second spell got underway and it didn’t take long for Basalaj to have to make a great close range save, before watching a follow-up effort fly over the cross bar.

It seemed to be a turning point for Wellington, who rediscovered some of the form that earned them the Stirling Sports Premiership title a week earlier and started putting some pressure back on Magenta.

Joel Stevens often found himself in possession with some gaping holes in the centre of the field for him to move into, while Tom Jackson and Ben Harris started making inroads into Magenta’s penalty area.

The increased pressure worked wonders as Team Wellington forced an error from Magenta which saw the referee Kader Zitouni point to the penalty spot.

Jackson stepped up to the challenge, firing past Jelen Ixoee to bring Wellington in line on the stroke of the hour.

The equaliser triggered some changes from both sides as they sought to get an edge over their opponent that would secure them the victory. Jackson came incredibly close to giving his side the lead in the 67th minute with a stunning chip that was denied only by the cross bar.

Wellington finally broke the deadlock in the 81st minute, taking the lead for the first time in the match with a well-placed flick-on finding Andy Bevin at the back post to finish past Ixoee.

With the regulation 90 minutes up, there were three minutes of additional time to play, but two were all Magenta needed to claim a late goal. After Mario Barcia handled the ball in the penalty area, it fell to Nicolas Marin to convert, which he did by firing low and wide of Basalaj’s reach.

If he were to sum up the match in a single word, Magenta coach Alain Moizan said it would be, “frustrating”.

“The first half we had quite a number of chances we should have scored, and a very good opportunity at the beginning of the second half,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. “

In 2016 it was a 2-0 win to Team Wellington in the one-off semi-final, so to get a 2-2 draw this time around is a recognisable improvement, Moizan said.

“Maybe we have progressed since last year. We will see in the second match.”

Counterpart Jose Figueira said the encounter was more or less what they had expected it to be.

“We knew they’re a strong side with some top players and, similar to us, are a team that plays on the front-foot, they like attacking,” he said.

“In the first half, we really suffered and we didn’t really get to grips with the way they pressed us. They stopped us from getting the ball down and trying to play and create opportunities,” he added.

“That’s credit to them and how they set up. At half-time we changed a few things tactically and were able to create some good opportunities form set pieces and open play. Perhaps we could have been out of sight a wee bit.”

The two sides will meet in the return leg of the semi-final at David Farrington Park in Wellington at 2pm on April 16.

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