Defending champions Labasa have progressed to the grand final of the 2023 Rooster Chicken/Scoops Ice cream Battle of the Giants beating Lautoka 7-6 after penalties in the first semifinal at the HFC Bank Stadium in Suva today.
Captain Simione Tamanisau was the star of the moment for Labasa as he saved Sitiveni Cavuilagi’s penalty while Sekove Naivakananumi scored from his attempt earlier.
Labasa started the match attacking and Edwin Sahayam took the first shot at goal via a free-kick in the second minute which was headed out of play by the Lautoka defence and the resulting corner kick did not pose any threat to goalkeeper Senirusi Bokini.
The Northerners kept the ball possession for two consistent minutes and earned another corner kick but Ashnil Raju’s delivery was tapped away by Bokini who got fouled in the process and this had the match held for over minute to allow for treatment on the pitch.
And when play resumed with a Lautoka free-kick, Labasa regained possession and found Christopher Wasasala who overcooked the opportunity and had the ball cleared away after two touches.
Lautoka’s first opportunity came in the seventh minute when Sakaraia Naisua was brought down outside the Labasa box. Fiji U23 midfielder Aporosa Yada and Zibraaz Sahib combined with the free-kick which eventually sailed over the cross-bar.
Labasa attacker Netani Suluka broke away in the 10th minute after beating an opponent but Blues captain Ilimotama Jese contained him well and made the clearance before any danger came to his goalmouth.
Referee Kavitesh Behari dug into his pocket for the first booking of the match in the 21st minute and flashed to Lautoka defender Epeli Leiroti for an infringement.
Sairusi Nalaubu got into the action in the 23rd minute but failed to connect with a deep cross which was floated right in front of the goal to him by Sitiveni Cavuilagi.
He again missed a sitter in front of the goal two minutes later after Saula Waqa sent in a perfectly sliced shot which just needed a tap-in.
Lautoka opened its account in the 30th minute after Naisua headed in a well delivered free-kick.
Labasa players were undeterred by the goal and continued to press hard.
A melee in front of goal saw Suluka snatch the equalizer nine minutes later.
Blues defender Afraz Ali was booked for a crude challenge on Sahayam in the 43rd minute and the resulting free-kick was blocked well and cleared by the defence.
Yada missed a good chance for Lautoka just before the break as the teams went to the change room leveled 1-1.
Lautoka pulled out Yada and sent in Nigerian striker Usman Omede early in the second half while Rusiate Doidoi and Josua Raqamu took the field for Labasa in place of Suluka and veteran Taniela Waqa.
Omede set up the second goal for Lautoka after beating an opponent and floating the ball towards goal which was unfortunately buried into his own net by Labasa defender Lekima Gonerau in the 59th minute.
A counter-attacking move saw Sahayam set up Wasasala who brilliantly turned away and slammed the ball onto the right of Bokini, giving him no chance at all to tie up the match.
Akeimi Ralulu was used as a gamble off the bench by interim coach Intiaz Khan and took the field in place of Ashnil Raju while youngster Sterling Vasconcellous replaced Leiroti for Lautoka.
As the match entered into extra time, Lautoka Coach Ronil Kumar pulled out Sahib and Saula Waqa and replaced them with Navneel Nand and Antonio Tuivuna.
The first spell of extra time was equally contested but Labasa suffered a blow at the commencement of the second spell after Ilisoni Loloivalu was given his marching orders following a second booking as he got into a tussle with Tuivuna.
With a player short on the field, the Babasiga Lions kept applying the pressure and replacement Nemani Dolodai missed a golden chance while Omede and Nalaubu were denied towards the end as the winner had to be decided via a penalty shoot-out.
Goalkeeper Bokini blocked Edwin Sahayam’s attempt while Antonio Tuivuna was successful to drive home the advantage.
Wasasala’s attempt was also initially saved but the kick had to be retaken due to an infringement and the second shot managed to find the target while Nalaubu was successful for Lautoka.
Dolodai, Gonerau and Doidoi were successful with the remaining three kicks for Labasa while Jese and Omede scored for Lautoka and the kick which could have put the Blues into the final was blasted over the cross-bar by Afraz Ali for the winner to be decided by the sixth kick.
Naivakananumi managed to find the target as his well-placed attempt sent Bokini in the right direction while Tamanisau beautifully judged Cavuilagi’s attempt to send big Labasa crowd at the Laucala oval into frenzy.
Bargain Box Lautoka– Senirusi Bokini, Epeli Leiroti, Zibraaz Sahib, Afraz Ali, Sitiveni Cavuilagi, Aporosa Yada, Ilimotama Jese (C), Kishan Sami, Sairusi Nalaubu, Saula Waqa, Sakaraia Naisua.
Extra Supermarket Labasa– Simione Tamanisau (C), Sitiveni Rakai, Edwin Sahayam, Ilaisa Nayasi, Christopher Wasasala, Ilisoni Loloivalu, Ashnil Raju, Lekima Gonerau, Netani Suluka, Taniela Waqa, Sekove Naivakananumi.