Tell you what, Team Wellington might have played up the underdog tag before their Club World Cup playoff with Al Ain (UAE), and it may have technically been their first ever competitive match against a professional club or against a club from another confederation (not sure why that fact kept getting rolled out… how many opportunities does any club have to play competitively across confederations?), but they sure didn’t play like it. They came out sharp from the opening kickoff, knocking the ball around nicely, and not looking in the least bit intimidated or overawed by the occasion.
Because make no mistake, when Mario Barcia’s eleventh minute stunner flew into the top corner like it’d been launched by Rocket Lab it did not happen against the run of play. Team Wellington were absolutely up for this. And what was most endearing about that is they did it playing the same way they do in the NZ Premiership, with the same players too. They didn’t play within themselves to be safe. They didn’t stack the team to compete. They backed the blokes that got them there in the first place, rewarding them for those past battles. Ten of the eleven starters had begun at least six of the eight Premmy games they’ve played this season and the only one who hadn’t is the only one who wasn’t with the club last season – Aaron Clapham.
Nothing wrong with that. Clapham is one of the legends of the kiwi domestic game from the last decade and a player who a couple months back was all but retired from the national league. He’d chosen to put family first and skip out on those trips around the country every second Sunday in summer but was enticed back into it by Team Wellington in mid-October, no doubt with this competition in mind. And who should score the second goal in the fifteenth minute of this one? Aaron Clapham, naturally. What a brilliant, heart-warming story that is. Even more because, damn, take a peek at that score… Team Welly were up 2-0 after quarter of an hour!
I’m not sure you could say they were in control or anything, the home side were definitely giving as good as they got. Speedy attackers and clever midfielders whipping the ball around, looking to get in behind the defence. That Caio fella especially – he was the one who thought he’d dragged a goal back only to have it disallowed for a foul on Hamish Watson way back in the other half. Hey, just VAR doing what VAR does.
But yeah, Team Welly had more than a few nervy moments there. This was a level of attacking intensity that they simply hadn’t faced before as a team and, if I’m being honest, defence isn’t necessarily this team’s best aspect anyway. Only two Premmy clean sheets so far and they were both against bottom three teams (as the table stands). That’s not to say that Justin Gulley, Taylor Schrijvers and Scott Hilliar aren’t all really good players because they are. It’s just that against a team like this the slightest miscommunication can be punished. This was literally amateurs against professionals.
The best example of that difference in opposition was in the middle of the paddock. The Marios Ilich and Barcia always look so unfazed during games in Aotearoa. They’re such a great combination for that very reason, they know how to take the sting out of attacks, how to steady their own team in possession… and when to have a crack at a sweeping switch of play or a devastating strike at goal. Amazing balance to the way they play which allows the front three and the wing-backs to do what they do. Except on this occasion, on a very big pitch, they looked tiny. Certainly not like the welcoming confines of Dave Farrington, aye?
That’s not meant as a criticism. Theirs is the most difficult position to play in these kinds of games and they, like the rest of their team, did pretty bloody excellently on the whole. You can’t expect it all to go your own way. To be honest, most neutrals seemed to think the TeeDubs would be feeding on scraps yet instead they more than held their own. Late in the first half they even made it three. Henry Cameron swung in consecutive corners to the near post looking for Aaron Clapham to flick ‘em on. Both ended up as additional corners. So the third time Hank whipped it over to the far post and Ilich was there waiting. Wide open for the side-foot finish. 3-0 up, what’s even going on!?
If only they coulda held on until the break. That might have been the difference. But they didn’t, they conceded straight away to Shiotani and then, probably buoyed by the ol’ lifeline, Al Ain made it 3-2 straight after the break as Doumbia polished off a fantastic ball over from Caio. Team Welly never wilted in this game. They understandably got more defensive as they were pushed back by a desperate home team with nothing left to lose but Jose Figueira’s subs were all attacking ones. Granted getting Eric Molloy on for Henry Cameron was like for like (Cameron had curiously started on the right, switching sides with Jack-Henry Sinclair) but the other two introductions were Nate Hailemariam on for Clapham and Angus Kilkolly on for JHS. Those are absolutely not the moves of a manager sitting back on a one goal lead.
Which is where the other major ‘if’ comes into the equation. If only they’d scored again in that second half when they had the chances. Al Ain came to boss the second half, understandably, but even at their best they were always vulnerable at the back. They didn’t have a physical defender who could deal with Hamish Watson for one thing and the big pitch allowed heaps of space for Clapham and especially Andy Bevin to move around in, finding pockets of space. There were gaps all across the Al Ain backline because of it. Watto had a brilliant opportunity from Sinclair’s top notch cross but his header went back over the crossbar. Then another time he couldn’t quite reach a ball at the back post. Maybe a diving header woulda been more useful but this is ‘football’ not ‘maybe’.
Then on came Marcus Berg and… wait wasn’t that the dude the starting striker for Sweden at the World Cup a few months back? Why yes, yes he was, as a matter of fact. And that bloke, penalty taking aside (probably woulda scored the spottie if he took it with his head), was just a class above. He immediately looked like he could score at any moment and, seven minutes after turning up, he did. His spinning volley took a deflection but jeez he did well just to get a strike like that off at all.
It was a great reminder of what an kiwi club is up against at this tournament. When Berg left Panathanaikos for Al Ain in June 2017, the Greek club literally put out a statement saying that he’d only gone to the UAE for the ‘great economic benefit’. In other words: cash money, baby, and lots of it. Team Welly’s ring-in was a father from Christchurch who once signed a one-game loan deal with the Wellington Phoenix. Al Ain’s was a decade-experienced Euro pro with 67 caps for Sweden (although both have been picked in the same number of World Cup squads).
That’s not something to feel bitter about, quite the opposite. It’s reason to be proud of this side for achieving what they did. This is a silly competition when you look at the bigger picture, a silly competition which is almost always going to be won by an indifferent European champion who’d rather not be there at all. The wider footy community certainly aren’t watching. This result won’t be leading Football Weekly tomorrow. That’s not what this thing is.
A team like Team Wellington couldn’t stack their squad even if they wanted to but I’m confident they wouldn’t if they could. Because then the Club World Cup really would be a piss-take. The Club World Cup is only worth something if you go there and give an honest-as-the-rising-sun account of yourselves and if you do that then, mate, it’s worth everything.
Once it went to penalties Al Ain were always more likely to win. They’ve got better technical players who get paid good money to do this, plus they had the crowd on their side. They also ended up shooting first and that’s another slight benefit. Experience helps too. Many of the Team Welly dudes had never experienced anything close to this. How could they have?
So I’m not even gonna mention who missed penalties because it doesn’t matter. Those lads gave it absolutely everything they had and they were so flippin’ close to getting it done. It was a cracking game of footy. And it shows once again that the level of the Premiership is only rising higher and higher. It’s an early exit for Team Wellington but it’s pretty hard not to feel a warm and fuzzy sense of pride inside after that game.
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