Hard to imagine too many professional teams having the loaded schedule that Auckland City FC have had to deal with (and continue to deal with) lately. In the midweek edition of Premmy Files a few days back their game with Shandong Luneng got the treatment. A proper battling effort which was undone late on by a rare error from Enaut Zubikarai, condemning the Navy Blues to a 2-1 defeat and leaving them with a consolation game for third place against the hosting Hong Kong Select XI. Followed by the Wellington Phoenix on Sunday, then Southern United away in Dunedin on Wednesday and Hamilton back at home the following Sunday. Five games in 15 days. Exhausted just thinking about it.
Naturally, with so many games crammed into such a narrow window, there were changes to the starting team for the Hong Kong XI game. And there were changes all the way through it too. Four different starters with Takuya Iwata, Alfie Rogers, Dylan Manickum and Maro Bonsu-Maro all getting a go, plus there were four more changes at half-time and constant subs the rest of the way. Nineteen players took the field – the only dudes in the travelling squad who didn’t get any game time at all during the tourney were the young buggers Jackson Wood, Ruben Parker, Cameron Brown and Joshua Jones. Which meant little cameos off the bench both times for Albert Riera. It meant the same for Omar Guardiola making his first appearances for his new club. It meant a return to action for Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi at the end of the HKXI game, after injuries had ruled him out for the whole of 2019 ‘til then.
All of which meant that Ramon Tribulietx did give the lads a good mix out there, with Cam Howieson, Brian Kaltack and Enaut Zubikarai the only folks to play the full 180 minutes at the… ahem, at the Tonghai Financial Chinese New Year Cup. That’s the one. Been funky seeing Kaltack establish himself as a first eleven dude lately, while we’re on that subject. Really tough defender who takes no prisoners and has a fair bit of skill stepping into the midfield when necessary too – which gives ACFC a different element at the back compared to the silkier abilities of Angel Berlanga and Mario Bilen. Plus Kaltack has an incredible shot, striking a football as hard as anybody in the Premiership.
And another lad really breaking into this team this season is Maro Bonsu-Maro, a graduate of City’s NYL squad. He scored four goals against Tasman United in their last NYL game of 2018 on the way to the championship and has twice come off the bench to score the winner for Auckland City in the Premiership this season – 1-0 wins over Hamilton and Canterbury. The Cantab game was the last one before they left for Hong Kong. Given the start against HKXI, Bonsu-Maro delivered quickly on that promise by earning a penalty in the first half. Problem there was that Fabrizio Tavano struck a tame one down the middle and it was saved.
City then got split through the middle, the midfield caught out of position and the defence scrambling to get aligned. Kaltack wasn’t quite able to stop the through ball into the area as he slid across in desperation and Iwata wasn’t able to keep up with the run from Awal Mahama, who got to the ball before a slightly hesitant Zubi and slid it past him for the goal. Immediately after the missed penalty. A double blow for ACFC.
But they shaped up in the second half with Bilen, Lea’alafa, Ludenmo and Morgan all introduced and it made a difference. City looked real sharp, with several chances to level the game thanks to the likes of Manickum, Guardiola, Ludenmo and Lea’alafa. A few acrobatic ones in there, even. The biggest frustration was a perceived foul on Tavano in the box which wasn’t awarded, robbing Fab the chance to make amends from the spot. So it goes… that incident didn’t make it into the highlights package above so can’t really comment. It ended 1-0 to the hosts.
That was on Thursday night. Auckland City then had to fly all the way back to home base to play Wellington Phoenix on Sunday arvo at Kiwitea Street. The only consolation there is that it was at home to the bottom team on the ladder. The WeeNix have been playing some really good stuff lately but they’d also had a midweek game against Team Wellington so they were on a short turnaround themselves. Those last twenty minutes were always going to be grind for both sides.
Lucky for the WeeNix. the senior side had played on Thursday so first teamers and recent signings Antony Golec and Justin Gulley were both sent north on the scavenging mission. The recent attacking usuals of Ben Waine, Callan Elliot and Will Ebbinge were all there, same goes for Sam Sutton and Gianni Stensness in the midfield. Gulley on one side of defence and Owen Smith on the other. Recent standout Ronan Wynne in central defence along with Boyd Curry and Golec on either side (Golec wearing #9 at centreback, presumably because it’s tall timber Max Batchelor’s jersey and his was the only one that would fit the lank Golec… and even then, only just). Zac Jones played in goal.
As far as defensive shape goes this is as good as they’ve looked all season. Midfield and attack have copped some blows with players leaving and not so many reinforcements – the team still lacks a genuine centre-forward (what’s Nathan Burns doing these days?) – but their defence is coming along nicely. Through their first ten games they leaked 33 goals. Through the five since only eight. Less than two per game after going at more than three per game. That’s progress.
Tell you what, they almost took an early lead too. One of those moments which might have changed the course of the whole contest as Ben Waine chopped inside through traffic from the right wing and fired past Zubikarai only to see his attempt come back off the post. In a game where the WeeNix had precious few chances they really needed that one to fly into the top corner. Instead they were the authors of their own undoing twenty minutes later when Stensness gave the ball away in midfield, begging for a free kick that was never coming, and when David Browne is in that much space you might as well start walking back to position for the kick off already.
Other than that it was a pretty tight first half with the WeeNix looking solid at the back with the exception of a few long balls that lobbed their high line and gave the speedy City frontline something to chase. Manickum, Lea’alafa and Browne all starting this one. No Javier Lopez, who wasn’t even on the bench and only played 45 mins in Hong Kong, he hasn’t featured in four consecutive league games now. Hard to see him getting much time in the OFC stuff coming up either, what with the tighter international restrictions and all (three imports plus one foreign OFC player). Their midfield was the normal trio of Yousif Ali, Cam Howieson and Fabrizio Tavano. Zubi in goal. Vale, Berlanga, Kaltack and Morgan across the back. Basically full strength for City despite it all (away to Southern will probably see more change – midweek away games out of town are always tough to get everyone available for).
City made it 2-0 in the 51st minute. Tavano with a free kick from the left flank, Ali won the header on the other side of the goal and it went in off the post. Can’t place it much better than that, once again this ACFC side had weathered a bit of a storm and were striding towards victory. But they got a scare on the hour when some swift pressing led to a turnover in their own half and a quick switch found Justin Gulley with an obscene amount of room to take a touch and then strike across Zubi to score. Now we had a game on our hands.
Ramon Tribulietx immediately brought some fresh (/fresher) legs on with Maro Bonsu-Maro replacing Manickum, a like for like change up top. Paul Temple wasn’t doing any like for likes though. He’d already made one change as Owen Smith was forced off with an ice pack on his leg late in the first half, Kurtis Mogg replacing him at left wingback, so with two more allowed he switched it up going all out for the equaliser by introducing Taci Kumsuz and going to a 4-3-3 shape. Kieran Richards also entered the match. Not holding back away to the top side and you could tell it made an impression because Tribulietx’s last two subs were Alfie Rogers and Albert Riera – very much consolidating the result as it stood.
It worked. City held on for the 2-1 win, absorbing what the WeeNix could offer and hitting them back twice as hard on the break (Dan Morgan was unlucky not to score when Zac Jones made a great diving stop late on). Once again the WeeNix just lacking in that punch up top and once again Auckland City were able to defy their own fatigue, defy their opposition, defy the sweltering heat in Auckland… and win regardless. 14 in a row and there officially is no stopping them now because results elsewhere meant this…
Minor premiers already. That’s because bloody Team Wellington only went and beat Eastern Suburbs! They were 1-0 down thanks to yet another Callum McCowatt goal, young mate with the incredible record of having scored in seven consecutive games. No stopping the lad. 12 for the season ties him with Sam Mason-Smith at the top of the goal scorer’s chart.
It had been a bright start from the visitors, as it always is for them. Nobody starts halves faster than Suburbs. But Team Welly didn’t need ten minutes after going behind before the resurgent Aaron Clapham set up Ross Allen to level it up from close range and then basically three minutes after that Clapham had one of his own as he got to the ball just ahead of Andy Withers in goal. Massive turnaround for the defending champs and amazingly they had another right on the brink of the break when Allen whipped in a penalty kick. The Guernsey Gunner doing what he does best. Haven’t seen too much of him this season but here he was stepping up when required.
Might see a bit more of him from now on though, given the news that broke a few days ago. Hamish Watson, mate. He’s off to Australia. Gonna play for the Melbourne Knights (same team as Louis Fenton played for a year ago). It’s a big blow for Team Welly coming so soon after losing both Mario Barcia and Justin Gulley in the transfer market, there goes three of their CWC starters. Then again after scoring eight goals in the first seven games, Watto had gone quiet with none since. And having only played off the bench the last month I guess that all makes more sense now. Best of luck to Watto on the new journey. Goals will follow, no doubt about it.
The ten minutes before the half were a shocker for Eastern Suburbs, the kind of rapid flash of goals that they’re much more used to inflicting on others. Danny Hay responded with a HT sub getting Alex Clayton out there but any plans for the comeback took a huge whack in the gut two minutes later when Tim Payne got a straight red for a foul on Andy Bevin. Captain on captain and it meant Suburbs had to execute their high pressing, smooth passing game with ten men. They definitely kept at it… but Team Welly were just too solid. Even without the injured Liam Wood and with Justin Gulley playing for the Wellington Phoenix at the time their defence was as steady as it gets.
For Team Welly to produce a performance like that having played in the midweek, that’s top shelf. Three games in seven days and they scored 12 goals and took nine points. Powerful football. By the way, Scott Basalaj was back in goal and Eric Molloy was rewarded for his goal midweek with a start. This was only the second start for Ross Allen but he’ll get more now, surely. Suburbs were unchanged from the team that thrashed Hamilton a week ago.
They’re also unchanged on the table, still sitting second… but only by goal difference. Good thing for them is that they play Waitakere, Tasman and Southern in their final three so should be able to take max points from them, while Team Welly still have to play away to Canterbury next week and ACFC at home the week after before closing with Hamilton. Simple to say who has the tougher remaining schedule… still gotta close it out though. These two teams will likely play in one semi-final so getting second and home field advantage is massive.
By the way, Eastern Suburbs’ four defeats? 0-1 at home to ACFC, 2-1 at home to Team Welly, 2-3 away to ACFC and 1-3 away to Team Welly. Other than that they’ve taken 31 points from a possible 33, conceding only five times in 11 games. This is a super young team but a team with immense talent. Just a matter of learning how to get past those two perennial title battlers, the gatekeepers of Premiership glory.
There were only the three Premmy games this weekend, this being a split week and all (only three next week and two in each of the following weeks – OFC Champions League being the main reason, though there are U20 trials going on as well ahead of the U20 Men’s World Cup later in the year). So the telly game in Hamilton was our last one of the week. Hamilton Wanderers hosting Canterbury United and really absolutely desperately needing a win to halt their downward spiral and keep their semi-final hopes alive. Lose and it’s basically all over for anyone outside the current top four.
The Tron Wands have seen their excellent start crumble under the weight of all the goals they keep conceding so perhaps fair enough that the only changes they made from the 5-1 thrashing by Eastern Suburbs last week were in defence, with James Hoyle back in place of the absent Tino Contratti (marking his brother Stephen for Canterbury!) and John Clout got his first start for the Wanderers at left back. Paul Clout’s played quite a bit but Johnny’s been waiting his time.
Unfortunately for them, Canterbury started brilliantly and were immediately on the offensive. They were strong in the challenge, stopping Hamilton from being able to build much up, and then, with fullbacks Aaron Spain and Hayden McHenery getting all the way forwards, they created chance after chance. Maksym Kowal was the one who finally put them in front after just eight minutes. Deep free kick from Adam Thurston and Matt Oliver wasn’t able to claim it, Kowal slamming the loose ball in on the volley. Nice strike. The Dragons kept it up too. Both those two fullbacks went close, McHenery maybe should’ve scored after linking beautifully with fellow young gun Seth Clark.
But then Hamilton, who’d only really had a sighter or two from Marty Bueno, scored out of next to nothing to level it. Tommy Semmy being Tommy Semmy and riding challenges, the ball squirting out to Derek Tieku who thumped it past Connor Tracey. Pretty cool to see Kowal and Tieku both in the goals. Each is an import forward used to doing heaps of hard yards for others to benefit.
Then Semmy did something odd: He made a mistake. He bumped into the speedy McHenery (love that burst of pace he’s got to take him past defenders) and it was a penalty, almost straight away after scoring they’d conceded again with Gary Ogilvie converting at the spot. Another of those sloppy bits of play, both technically and mentally, from the Wanderers and even their best player wasn’t immune.
The Dragons kept on trucking and Clark had a few goes. He’s a real talent, that dude. Big breakout season from him, he’s got a great left foot and fantastic skill in gliding past tackles with the vision to link up with teammates as he does. Kowal also rounded the keeper but was unable to get an angle to score. And Ogilvie swung a free kick into the frame of the goal. 2-1 to Canterbury at half-time.
Maksym Kowal had a deserved second in the 52nd min after Aaron Spain played him through. Oliver saved the first attempt but had no chance against the second. Earlier John Clout had nodded one over the bar and that miss came to look kinda crucial. However there was one more lifeline when Joe Nottage leant back, having drifted free at the back of the area, and somehow got his leg high enough to volley in from a corner. Incredible goal to be fair.
You may recall that the last time these two played each other it was an absolutely thrilling 3-3 draw. Canterbury had been 3-0 up in the second half and even though they picked up not one but two red cards along the way, somehow Hamilton Wanderers were able to come back to draw it. Marty Bueno scored an unbelievable free kick that day. If they were going to keep their playoff hopes alive then they needed to go one better than that and win… but even with a few Ricki Herbert subs and a formation change they couldn’t find the momentum to make it happen.
Instead Stephen Hoyle, who had been quiet all game ‘til then, did what great strikers do and scored anyway. He popped up on a spare ball in the box and bang, 4-2. That was the final score. Yet another game where Hamilton leaked mass goals. That’s 13 conceded in their last three. 19 in their last five. You don’t make the semis that way, sorry to say, and with only three games to go their playoff hopes are officially dead. That’s what you get when you only take one point from six games.
Spare the downbuzz though, it’s better to focus on how well Canterbury Utd are going. They had Sean Liddicoat in central defence again here and it’s working lovely, freeing Cory Mitchell up to play as a combative defensive midfielder and getting the speedsters of McHenery and Spain loose on the wings. Those two both had great games here. Connor Tracey is proving himself one of the top keepers in the comp this season and they’re filled out by a good contingent of local up and comers – none classier than Seth Clark. Adam Thurston’s fitted in well to their English import crew. Old Willy Gerdsen, you’ve done it again.
The Dragons have only lost twice in ten games and those were against Eastern Suburbs and Auckland City. They might still catch second or third on the ladder but with ten points of room between them and fifth the top four is all but confirmed now and that’ll be official possibly as soon as next week. A win against Team Wellington coupled with dropped points for Southern will do the trick. Southern who play Auckland City in the midweek. Auckland City who have won 14 out of 14 and 20 Premiership wins in a row all up, 26 games unbeaten in a row all up. All the success that City’s had over the last decade and this might be their best ever incarnation… but more on them in the midweek.
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