Neither Papua New Guinea’s Lae City nor Solomon Islands’ Henderson Eels will get anywhere near close to lifting the OFC Champions League trophy unless their performances see a marked upturn in skill, quality and defensive solidity.
The opening game of the 2020 OFC Champions League in Luganville, Vanuatu, ended in a 3-3 draw between Lae City and Henderson Eels, but the game was bereft of any real quality, and exposed both sides’ glaring weaknesses.
The opening ten minutes of the game was ping-pong football, with both sides showing some nervy passing, sloppiness in possession, and poorly-timed attempts at goal, which were often snapped at. It’s understandable that the players will have been nervous on the big stage, but even once the game had settled into somewhat of a rhythm, there were some key issues for both sides that need addressing.
Eels looked, for the most part, more impressive and assured than Lae, and the Solomon Islands’ league runners-up did an adequate job at retaining possession in the midfield and defence. However, their total and utter reliance on young starlet Raphael Lea’i, who is only 16, is a concern. Yes, Lea’i looks to be an absolutely superb talent, and he will undoubtedly see his footballing future away from the Solomon Islands, but there was almost zero creativity from anywhere else on the field. Lea’i was the only player willing to take on defenders, and his goal, which put Eels 2-1 up going into half-time, was a result of his mazy running, intricate footwork, and ability to finish from an exceptionally tight angle. It’s great to have a player like that in your side, but with such a huge amount of pressure on such young shoulders, it’s difficult to imagine that Eels can rely on the youngster to take the team all the way to victory.
At the back, Solomon Islands number 1 Desmond Tutu had a shocking match, which could have led to Lae City scoring far more than just the three they put away. Tutu looked nervy on the ball, made several uncomfortable saves and more than a few questionable decisions. One would hope that now the first game is out of the way that nerves will settle slightly, and we’ll see more of the reason why Tutu is first choice for the national team.
For Lae City, there were perhaps some even bigger problems. As predicted in my preview of their chances, their defence is ageing and problematic, and after Eels scored their second goal through Lea’i, after just 39 minutes, coach Peter Gunemba made a change in the defence, taking off Valentine Nelson, 32, and bringing on former Morobe United defender Joshua Oscar, 29. Clearly, Nelson was unable to handle the pace and skill of young Lea’i, and further questions will be asked of Nelson, his defensive partner Mosie Milubwe, and others in matches to come. For the defence to concede two unnecessary penalties also shows a lack of professionalism and perhaps a tinge of panicking under pressure.
However, Lae didn’t just have problems at the back. In the midfield, their passing felt rushed, and as a result the side were unable to keep hold of possession for long periods of time. One positive, though, is how direct the side were: particularly in the first half, although Eels dominated possession, Lae had the better chances, as the ball would be pumped or worked forward swiftly to strikers Raymond Gunemba, Nigel Dabinyaba and Obert Bika.
However, the strikers didn’t have a particularly good day either. Dabinyaba, until his goal, looked well off his usual solid standard, while Ray Gunemba in particular looked as if the occasion had gotten to him. In fairness, he was being tightly marked by the two Eels centre-backs, but at times it looked as if Gunemba wanted to win too much. Of the two clear-cut chances he had, the first was blasted directly at the ‘keeper and well saved, while the other he failed to really get a hold of. There were also several moments when Gunemba had his arms raised in despair, either due to challenges against him, poor passes aimed towards him from team-mates, or team-mates shooting instead of laying the ball off to him in better positions. As Gunemba reaches the end of his career, it’s understandable that he sees his chances of winning competitions like this growing thinner, but the veteran must show more composure in the next two group games in order to have a chance of progressing to the knock-outs.
The other game in the group between Malampa Revivors and Lautoka finished in the draw, so we’re looking at a blank slate going into the second round of matches on Tuesday. Both sides will need to regroup, look at what they can improve, and up their game immensely to rise to the big challenges ahead of them.