A person could get used to these midweek catch-up games. Early evening in the Aotearoa summer… not the easiest for the players but when you can settle down with the cricket on one screen and a livestream of Southern vs Auckland City on another… mate, that’s magic.
Auckland City have had a well-publicised week of excessive football. Skipping over the repeated yarns, this was their fifth game in February and we’re only halfway through the month. Fatigue was no drama on the weekend as they held off the Wellington Phoenix to win 2-1 and, with Team Wellington doing them a favour elsewhere in beating Eastern Suburbs, they took home the minor premiership along with it – a week or two ahead of even what they must have anticipated. 14 wins out of 14, utterly remarkable.
But if any game was going to be a banana peel game then it was this one, midweek in Dunedin with the tanks running on less than empty against a Southern team that’s taken them close in recent times. Haven’t beaten City for years but they were 1-0 up a few weeks back in Auckland thanks to a Garbhan Coughlan goal (of course) before going eventually down 2-1. Earlier on in the season they were tied 0-0 at the half before that one was rained off early in the second stanza, hence this catchup game. And last season they drew with City twice. They’re a scrappy team and, let it be known, a win would keep their slim hopes of cracking the top four alive. This one was at Sunnyvale, not Forsyth Barr where they were undefeated in three games (bloody rugby season starting so early, aye?), but don’t worry about it.
Last week’s midweeker between Team Wellington and the WeeNix saw the obscene decision by both coaches to name unchanged line-ups from a few days earlier. This time there was no such depravity. City were all about the depth, with eight changes from the side that toppled the WeeNix. Only Fabrizio Tavano, Brian Kaltack and Yousif Ali stuck around. That meant a few sweet little happenings.
One was that Omar Guardiola played his first Premiership game for the ACFC against the team he signed for them from. It meant a return to the team for Javier Lopez after four games out. It meant that explosive young fella Maro Bonsu-Maro earned his first start this campaign after eight subs appearances. It meant Albert Riera’s first start of the season and goalie Ruben Parker’s second start. It also meant ninety minutes for Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi at centre back, where he might lowkey be even better than his usual gig in the midfield. Definite shades of Ivan Vicelich about him at CB. TAHW hadn’t started a game for City since November thanks to injury.
Then the other sweet little happening was that Yousif Ali played opposite his brother, Southern playmaker Abdullah Al-Kalisy. We had the Hoyle brothers playing against each other a few days ago, now this. Love it. The Al-Kalisy lads have each been quietly brilliant this season, Yousif as a holding midfielder for ACFC and Abdullah running at defenders and creating goals for SU.
Southern didn’t have a game on the weekend so no chaotic preparation for them. Alex Soromon got his first start for the team out on the right wing while Markus Fjortoft came in at left back, otherwise it was as per usual. Stephen Last, Erik Panzer, Tony Whitehead, Danny Ledwith, Abdullah Al-Kalisy and Garbhan Coughlan have all started every single game this season, which is just incredible. Connor O’Keeffe and Liam Little have only missed one each. Also gotta shout out 18 year old midfielder Ben Deeley who has now started five games in a row and is holding it down nicely. Looking like a great talent.
So that thing about this being a banana peel game… ten minutes in the home side took the lead. Coughlan won a corner kick, the first of the game, after cutting back and crossing into a defender. Al-Kalisy swung it in dangerously and Soromon got his head to it, drawing a pretty amazing save out of Ruben Parker but no defender reacted quicker than Stephen Last did to the loose ball as it came back down off the frame of the goal, tapping it in from close range for 1-0.
That was about it for the next hour or so. This definitely had that midweek feel vibe about it, both sides not so much sort on energy or passion but certainly a little more cautious than they’d ordinarily be. Maybe it was that fabled southern heat. Coughlan and Al-Kalisy looked the most likely to create anything but City were typically solid at the back, even with all the changes, and shots were of short supply. And while City did some things in the midfield and the pace and skill of Bonsu-Maro and Guardiola are always going to be troubling… they really weren’t doing a whole lot. Some glimpses of scintillating build ups but no end product. Gotta say Lopez was pretty absent.
Thus it went into the second half and beyond and Southern should have been feeling good about that narrow lead as the clock ticked onwards. But Ramon Tribulietx wasn’t rolling into town naked, friends. He had weaponry on the bench in the form of David Browne. Just before the hour he replaced Albert Riera out there and within ten minutes he’d earned a penalty kick, which Lopez whacked in despite a hand from Liam Little on the way through.
That gave us a real scrappy last twenty minutes. City had their noses up looking for win number fifteen while Southern were desperate to become the first side to take points off City. We got plenty of whistle in that second half as a result. We also got Southern throwing out three young fellas off the bench in Sam Pickering, Alex Cox and Adam Hewson. It was so much fun that even City got in on the action with another of their championship winning youth side given a go in Jackson Woods, who played the last ten minutes at right back and had one crucial contribution when he zapped the ball back off Hewson after Hudson-Wihongi had given it away cheaply. City had a couple pot shots. Coughlan had an appeal for a penalty declined. Guess what? It ended 1-1.
That means that City snaps a 20-game winning streak in the Premiership going back to last season, though they’re still undefeated in… well, if you ignore the game that was overturned on a legality last season then they haven’t lost a Premmy game since 2017… which is so unbelievable that it barely even makes conceptual sense, let alone accepting it as reality. Focus for City will soon turn towards the OFC Champions League where they really have a point to prove and on the back of the depth they’ve shown over the last few games, this one especially, it’s going to be tough for anyone to stop them.
But if anyone can then obviously it’s Team Wellington, who did the trick in the OCL last time and ran City close in the Premmy grand final. The TeeDubs have surged back into form with three wins in a row, including coming from behind to defeat Eastern Suburbs in a game that could have massive ramifications on the semi finals. What’s most impressive about that is they’re doing it while haemorrhaging players. Justin Gulley signed with the Wellington Phoenix. Mario Barcia left for Indonesia. Hamish Watson has joined the Melbourne Knights. Now this…
Scott Hilliar has been one of their most underrated players these last two years, a genuinely impressive kiwi defender who plays with poise and control, hardly ever seeming to make a mistake. His partnership with Gulley and Taylor Schrijvers at the back was immense while it lasted. He’s now off to play for Avondale FC in the Victorian side of the NPL in Aussie, meaning he’ll be playing against Watto along the way (and also the Bentleigh Greens side that knocked the Phoenix out of the FFA Cup last year). Great gig for him and best of luck with it.
That’s now four starters from the Club World Cup side who have since left the team. Thing is, Team Welly pre-empted the loss of Watson by bringing back Joel Stevens, who was on the bench for the Suburbs game though I don’t believe he got on the paddock in the end. That’s an absolute game changer for them. Stevens was one of the league’s finest attacking talents before he left for Sweden. And they’re well sorted to replace Hilliar as well because look at what happened here…
This is even more massive. Adam Mitchell is an All White international. He’s a classy defender capable of playing at a higher level, having impressed in the Bolton academy last season and with pro experience in Serbia and Slovenia previously. Most recently he’d been trialling with Walsall and then Swedish club Kalmar so you know he’s got the goods. Although you already knew that anyway if you’ve been on the TNC buzz for a while because we actually interviewed him in early 2018. Cool. Get Liam Wood back fit and chuck him next to Schrijvers and Mitchell and they won’t lose a step. And because Gulley and Barcia left for pro contracts they could technically sign one more player outside the window too… better watch that space because things are starting to sizzle.
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