Favourites Auckland City will take a narrow advantage into the 2nd leg of the 2011 O-League final after defeating Amicale 2-1 at Port Vila Stadium in Vanuatu on Saturday afternoon.But the two-time champions were made to work hard in front of over 8,000 boisterous fans and only earned the win thanks to a rather fortuitous late goal from substitute Luis Corrales. There was some doubt about whether the pint-sized Costa Rica-born striker would be able to make it to Vanuatu - he arrived a day later than the rest of the squad - but City will be delighted they got him on a plane.
"There was a problem with his visa but he has been doing very well so we were keen to get him involved," a relieved City co-coach Ramon Tribulietx said.
Corrales was more than just involved in the 82nd minute when he slid in at the back post to meet a deep cross from the left. He failed to make a clean connection but Amicale defender Selwyn Sese Ala could only blast the ball into the grounded City player and the rebound bounced into the net.
"The win has come via a little bit of luck in the end and I think we would definitely have settled for a draw," admitted Aaron McFarland, who is in charge of the side with Tribulietx. "Considering they played very well and dominated possession, we're very happy with 2-1."
City got off to a good start in a match played in scorching heat and had their noses in front by the 22nd minute after Amicale goalkeeper Ernest Bong charged from his line and clattered into Spanish striker Manel Exposito, once on the books of Catalan giants Barcelona.
A penalty was awarded for Bong's challenge and Exposito got up to dispatch it, despite the custodian getting two hands to the strike.
Getting back into the game was always going to be difficult for the home side as Auckland have conceded only two goals in their entire O-League campaign. But, buoyed by the fanatical support of the football-mad locals, they pressed a deep-lying Auckland defence hard for the rest of the match and had their reward in the 67th minute.
There was no surprise in the fact that it came from the boot of captain Fenedy Masauvakalo, who already had six O-League strikes to his name and added a seventh when he swivelled in the box to fire a right foot shot past City goalkeeper Jacob Spoonley and send the home fans delirious.
Now with the momentum, it looked at that point like Amicale had every chance of going on and earning the win but their hearts were broken when Corrales came off the bench and wrote himself into City folklore.
"We had watched a bit of footage of them and expected them to play a possession game, they didn't surprise us in that fact," said McFarland. "They mixed up their play - going longer sometimes and keeping it short at others - and we were very impressed with them."
Amicale opposite Luke Eroi was disappointed with the result but felt his charges performed well and could not have done much more to test Auckland's vaunted rearguard.
"We played well but we found out what a good side Auckland City is," he said. "They are the best team we have played in the O-League and we will have to work so hard to beat them."
Eroi had just as much praise for the people of Port Vila, who turned out in such great numbers to get behind their team.
"The crowd were amazing and it was great to see so many people."