IT WAS a game of intense pressure and not for the feint hearted, especially for Labasa and Lautoka fans.
The Design-Engineering-sponsored Blues rose from the brink of elimination, from 10-man down to secure a 2-1 win over the highly-fancied northerners in a pulsating Group B encounter at the 2013 Inkk Mobile Battle of the Giants.
Having lost their first pool match to Rewa at Subrail Park last Saturday, the Blues were facing an uphill battle.
There was a soul-searching meeting called straightaway as the coach Ravinesh Kumar and LFA top brass reviewed the failure and mapped out a strategy to get back to winning ways.
Up next, they faced Navua and all the plans worked well as the Navuans were brushed aside 2-0. Then yesterday, the crucial tie against a Labasa side riding on a high with six points. It became even tougher for the Blues when Rewa beat Navua 2-0, meaning the westerners needed to win by at least a goal to ensure qualification.
Kumar opted for an attack-minded 3-4-3 formation. It didn't look good for the Blues when Taione Kerevanua put Labasa 1-0 up from the penalty spot.
Hardworking Zibraaz Saheb levelled scores just before half-time from close range after keeper Vereti Dickson could only parry back into the midfielder's path his initial header.
It was game on. Then in the second half Lautoka looked to have been struck a big blow when skipper Ilaitia Tuilau was sent-off for a second bookable offence. Labasa's faliure to capitalise on some good chances that came their way through Pita Bolaitoga and Koriack Upaiga kept the opposition in the game.
Then on a counter-attack, Nelson Odaiji saw his header bound for the net only for Posiano Kalisito, who was already on a yellow card, to handle. Oof went Kalisito and referee Rakesh Varman gave a penalty. Alvin Avinesh was cool under pressure and slotted home to make it 2-1. It was 10-on-10 from thereon and the Blues held on.
"This win is for the Blues fans and officials. It comes from the players who played their hearts out," an elated coach Kumar said afterwards.
"They stuck to the game plan, didn't panic and got the result we wanted."
Senior vice-president and sponsor Abdul Rafiq Khaiyum was a happy man.
"It was tough. It's good to come into the semi-finals the hard way," he said.
"The good thing was that the players didn't lose hope. They kept faith in themselves and the will to win was there. It's looking good for all the Blues fans and hopefully they will turn up in numbers tomorrow (today)."
Labasa coach Johnny Williams said sometimes when you come into a game with a lot of confidence it could turn out the other way.
However, he said they would rectify their mistakes and come back a better team today.
"I am fine with the Ba-Labasa semi-final, the harder they come the better they are," said the former Labasa midfield maestro. Lautoka and Labasa finished the group with six points each, four goals for and two against - tied on everything. The Blues were declared pool winners by virtue of winning their head-to-head clash against the Lions.
Rewa 2 Navua 0
One of the reasons Labasa qualified for the semi-final was because of Navua. If the Saiyad Ali-coached side had conceded one more goal against Rewa, the Delta Tigers would have gone through together with Lautoka.
Rewa scored through James Naka and Apisai Smith but could not find a third against a weakened Navua side playing without the suspended trio of James Charitar, Inia Boko and Simione Maikali.
While the Rewans went home with six points the Navuans remain pointless in two tournaments this season — the Fiji FACT and Battle of the Giants. They have lost all six pool matches and even failed to score a goal at this BOG. They have now gone five consecutive tournament games without a goal — that's 450 minutes of football, seven and a half hours in total. Something the Reds coaching staff will have to look into. However, we must give credit where it is due and thumbs up to president Faud Ali, Saiyad, veteran goalkeeper Sitiveni Qarua and the players for going down with a fight. Thanks to you guys and Rewa's inability to net a third, Labasa is in the semi-finals today. It's probably time to make changes with some so-called 'thick-headed' senior players and include committed younger homegrown Navua players in a new squad for the new league season and the IDC.
Nadroga 2 Suva 0
Goals from Elvin Prasad and Joseph Elder shocked Suva. There were two missed penalties in this upset encounter, as you will get to read in my colleague Zanzeer Singh's story on the facing page, before Elder scored from a third penalty for the men from the Coral Coast.
Elder, who was often on the subs bench for Navua, ensured his spot-kick put Gurjit Singh's men under pressure before Prasad cemented Nadroga's berth in the semi-final. Suva finished the game with nine players with Leone Damudamu and goalkeeper Emori Ragata red-carded.
Ba 1 Nadi 1
Uraia Loki scored a controversial goal to give Jack's Nadi the lead against Ba before Osea Vakatalesau netted the equaliser in the second spell.
Needing a 3-0 win to displace Nadroga in the semi-final, Loki put the jet-setters in front. Ba fans and players complained that he had netted with his hand but the goal stood. Ba came back to equalise through Vakatalesau to ensure they play Labasa in the first semi-final today at 5pm followed by the second semi-final between Nadroga and Lautoka.
It will be a cracker but I feel Posiani Kalisito's absence will be felt at the back by the Lions. Goalkeeper Vereti Dickson doesn't look all that sound, solid and confident at the back as well. Ba will come out with all guns blazing. Johnny Williams will have to map out an extraodinary strategy to keep the Men in Black out.
Prediction: Ba 1 Labasa 0
The Blues are back from the dead and there is no stopping them from hereon.
They will miss Ilaitia Tuilau but I am sure the boys will play for their captain, who has been outstanding as a leader so far. Nadroga put up a spirited effort against Suva and were helped along by Suva's dismissals. However, I don't think they will have that much firepower upfront to threaten the Blues defence.
Lautoka 2 Nadroga 0.