Auckland FC refocus after Morocco heartbreak

Auckland City's stand-in coach is confident the Oceania champions will return to the winner's circle in the national league today without five key players, who are still holidaying in Europe.

Ex-All White Riki van Steeden will mark his first premiership game as a head coach when Auckland host Hawke's Bay United. He is filling in for regular boss Ramon Tribulietx, who is visiting family and friends in Barcelona after Auckland's Club World Cup finals campaign in Morocco last week.

Spanish defender Angel Berlanga, All Whites goalkeeper Tamati Williams, Darren White, Daniel Koprivcic and Andrew Milne have also stayed on in Europe.

But van Steeden said the defections should not unsettle Auckland.

"We've got a lot of depth in our squad and a lot of talent. It shouldn't be a problem. We will be able to field a pretty strong lineup with a few younger players on the bench."

Van Steeden said the absent quintet's holiday plans had been known for some time and everything was "reasonably well organised".

He believes Auckland will still be strong enough to win and keep the pressure on premiership leaders Waitakere United. City can still call on All Whites veteran Ivan Vicelich, proven goalscorers Roy Krishna, Ryan de Vries and Emiliano Tade, overseas imports Cristobel Marquez and Mario Bilen and the experienced James Pritchett and Chris Bale.

Williams will be replaced in goal by Louis Caunter.

Auckland City lost their first-round playoff at the Club World Cup finals, going down 2-1 to Moroccan club Raja Casablanca after conceding an injury-time goal. Tribulietx was devastated and some of the Auckland players broke down in tears.

Van Steeden, who scored a memorable match-winning goal for Auckland at the Club World Cup finals in 2009, said the squad had put the Morocco heartbreak behind them.

"There's a reasonably positive vibe in the team. I know it was a loss but it wasn't a bad performance. We lost to a team that went on and won two more games at the tournament."

Raja Casablanca beat Mexican champions Monterrey 2-1 in the quarterfinals and then beat Brazilian club Atletico Mineiro, containing former Brazil superstar Ronaldinho, 3-1 in the semifinals. They faced German Bundesliga superpower Bayern Munich in this morning's final.

Van Steeden said it could be difficult returning to the national league from such a big event, "when you're playing in front of 40,000 screaming fans".

"But our guys are professional players so they've just got to be mentally switched on."

He said the Auckland camp were determined to get back to the Club World Cup finals and national league success was a pathway to that goal. Auckland have 10 points, three behind Waitakere, but have two games in hand over their arch-rivals.

"Hawke's Bay are pretty much on the same points as us, so it's a big game . . ."

The odds favour Auckland, who haven't lost to Hawke's Bay United for five years.

Van Steeden turns 37 on Tuesday and victory in his first game as head coach would be a welcome early Christmas and birthday present.

In other games today, Waitakere will be seeking a third consecutive win in Christchurch against fifth-placed Canterbury United, who lost 1-0 to Hawke's Bay last week. Otago-based Southern United travel to Albany anxious to avoid a record 12th consecutive defeat when they meet Wanderers SC, the New Zealand under-20 squad.

Team Wellington, who are ranked fourth, should be favoured to beat sixth-placed WaiBop United in the capital. Wellington defender Adam Cowan will make a league-record 150th appearance after earlier service at Youngheart Manawatu and Hawke's Bay United.

Sunday News