Three more games this week, things are a little stretched these days with split rounds and all that getting out ahead of the OFC Champions League, but three games which involved five of the top six teams on the ladder. In other words, given the precarious state of the league table, three games which had the potential to offer complete clarity to the top four make-up and complete confusion as to the order of that top four. Which is exactly what happened.
We begin our travels in lovely Nelson, where Tasman United hosted Southern United – Southern being the only team from outside the current top four who could still mathematically make the semis coming into this week. They’d gone on a pleasant run across four straight home games, beating Hamilton and Waitakere as well as drawing with Team Wellington and Auckland City, so can’t complain about the form. Then again Tassie were also on a nice run, with eight points from their last four games and they’d had last week off to prepare.
Southern kept the same backline that almost denied Auckland City on Wednesday but mixed it up further forwards with Adam Hewson and Chris McDonald getting starts. For Hewson it was his first start after six goes off the bench for the 19 year old. Tony Whitehead missed his first game of the campaign, which only leaves five more ever-present Southerners. Another start for Alex Soromon though – meaning heaps of attacking options on display between McDonald, Soromon, Abdullah Al-Kalisy and Garbhan Coughlan. Tasman’s side, which included young fullback Jake Williams and import defender Joe Ellul, was a little more balanced towards the defence. Matt Tod-Smith continued amongst the forwards again. Also this was announced to be captain Tom Hickey’s last game for the club so big reason to be up for the clash.
Judging by the twitter feed (which once again failed to include lineups, come on folks), this was an absolute belter of a game with high paced action all over the place, utter chaos and drama on display… either that or somebody loves the exclamation mark a bit too much. Gotta rate the enthusiasm. The Premiership always needs a bit more enthusiasm.
The exclamation marks lasted the entire game. Joe Ellul did not. Always a bloke who loves to rough it up a bit, Big Joe gave Tasman the lead with a slick finish at the far post a little before half-time, striking just as Southern were beginning to make things happen (through Al-Kalisy in particular). But Ellul got himself a second yellow about ten minutes into the second half and that put an end to that strategy. The plan became to sit back and survive, which they executed to perfection against Eastern Suburbs earlier in the season and with ten minutes remaining things were looking sweet here as well.
Until Garbhan Coughlan struck. The Irish striker, who continues to live a blonded life, did what he does best to score in the 82nd and 89th minutes for the win. Typical centre forward goals. Getting in the right place at the exact right time – his 12 goals take him tied top of the pops with Callum McCowatt and Sam Mason-Smith, neither of whom were in action this weekend. Crazy tight golden boot race this season. Bloody Emiliano Tade ran away with it last time. Mate and you know what else? Coughlan was apparently in some doubt for this game (along with Conor O’Keeffe) after suffering with a bit of flu during the week.
That had Southern hanging on in the playoff frame but that dream only lasted another half an hour. The late drama giveth and the late drama taketh away, after all. TUvSU had kicked off at 1.30pm and at 2.00pm Canterbury United and Team Wellington got underway. Team Welly welcomed new signing Adam Mitchell to the backline for the departed Scott Hilliar in their only change from the XI that started the win over Eastern Suburbs a week ago. Canterbury also made just one change from a winning team and that was Luke Tongue in for fellow youngster Seth Clark… though you haven’t heard the last from Clarkey, let me tell you that.
For the most part it was two well-coached and experienced sides cancelling each other out. Team Welly had won three in a row despite losing a few crucial players, but the Dragons are increasingly proving they’re worth more than just a seat near the top of the table. They gave Auckland City a fright a few weeks back and have looked a real handful on both wings as Dan McHenery and Aaron Spain go pushing forwards with all their elusive abilities. We also saw a rare instance of Andreas Wilson off the bench against Team Welly. That’s the first time he’s played for about a month. No shortage of excellent fullbacks in Chch, that’s for sure.
The Dragons struck early in the second stanza following a goalless first half when Gary Ogilvie converted from the spot following a foul on Adam Thurston. But Andy Bevin responded swiftly to restore level footing. The two captains getting in on the goals.
Team Welly threw on Nati Hailemariam for Ross Allen to try and alter things. Allen bagged a double last week but wasn’t able to get into this game to anywhere near the same degree. And unless somebody forgot to tweet the deets, it sounds like neither Henry Cameron nor Joel Stevens were used off the bench again. Quite the luxury to have those two as unused subs.
Nah, instead it was Willy Gerdsen who rolled the dice and came up winners. Seth Clark, the local teenager who has been so bloody good this season, came on for about the last twenty minutes and he straight away threatened Scott Basalaj’s goal from range. Then, right at the end of the game, he scored a screamer and would you look at that? The Dragons won.
With that Canterbury United book their place in the semis. They’re still only nine points clear Southern who have three more games to play but apparently NZ Football go by head to head when it comes to tiebreakers. Fair enough, one way’s as good as the other… as long as everybody’s aware of it. Canterbury Utd have already beaten Southern twice so, sorry lads, that’s your dinner all eaten.
That revelation makes these last few weeks quite intense though. That table, my friend. One point between second and fourth. Second gets a home semi. Fourth is away to Auckland City. A single point currently determines those contrasting fates. Here are the remaining schedules…
Eastern Suburbs (31 PTS / 15 GP / +28 GD):
Waitakere (H), Tasman (A) & Southern (H)
Team Wellington (31 PTS / 16 GP / +18 GD):
Auckland City (H) & Hamilton Wanderers (A)
Canterbury Utd (30 PTS / 16 GP / +2 GD):
Waitakere (A) & Tasman (A)
Suburbs have one extra game to play hence they’re looking good for that second spot, especially since they haven’t lost to any team other than ACFC and TW so far. Team Welly beat them twice so the tiebreaker is sorted there, though Suburbs beat the Dragons by a combined score of 8-2 which takes care of that one. And the Dragons with this win take the tiebreaker over the TeeDubs. Jeez, it’s like rock, paper, scissors.
Then we had the telly game up at Kiwitea Street, where Auckland City (minor premiers) hosted Hamilton Wanderers (minor crisis). It had all started so well for Hamilton, taking 16 points from the first half of the draw but ever since their memorable 4-3 win over Waitakere, coming back from 3-0 down, they haven’t won a thing. Not been kept scoreless in any of them, just can’t stop leaking goals at the wrong end. And to compound matters, the muppets who decide the TV schedule for Sky Sports for some reason put Hamilton Wanderers on telly for four consecutive weeks… during which time they conceded 16 goals. It’s one thing for the wheels to fall off but to have it happen to the commentary of Andrew Dewhurst? Nobody deserves that indignity.
Ricki Herbert’s proposed solution to the task at hand was to revert to a back three like at the start of the season, although the most recent time he did that it didn’t work out so well with HW down 3-1 after fifteen minutes against Hawke’s Bay (they ended up drawing 4-4). Things didn’t look particularly flash for them early on as ACFC immediately turned it up to eleven, punctuated by the ringing of the crossbar after Dan Morgan smacked a shot off it. But Wanderers did settle into things after that and their deep midfield and extremely aggressive wingbacks had some half-moments.
Extremely aggressive because those wingbacks were Stafford Dowling and Derek Tieku. Hell of a lot of attacking talent there playing back in defence. Martin Maybin supported Tommy Semmy and Marty Bueno up topskees. Plus Tino Contratti returned at the back, with 19 year old John Clout holding his spot and Joe Nottage between them. Brad Whitworth returned from injury to start in the midfield alongside Xavier Pratt. Matt Oliver in goal. A pretty strong team but they might have been a little better with Rhys Ruka and his set piece delivery in there too, given set pieces were the only time they really looked threatening but some mud crosses and shots quickly took the steam out of those.
As for City, Ramon Tribulietx continues to mix things up ahead of the Champions League. In dropping their first points of the season midweek down in Dunedin (shot, Southern, big effort) only Brian Kaltack, Yousif Ali and Fabrizio Tavano held their places from the game versus Wellington Phoenix a few days earlier. Notably none of that trio started this time and only Ali was even on the bench. Fair enough with the heavy fixture congestion and all that. Eight changes between the WeeNix and Southern, eight more changes to play Hamilton. Albert Riera with a second start of the campaign. Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi in defence alongside Angel Berlanga this time. Cam Howieson and David Browne back in there for the big guns. Reid Drake returning from injury at a convenient time. Also Patrick Lundemo got a second starting gig up front.
That’s the one real funky thing with City at the moment. Everything else is fine and dandy like sour candy but the central striker thing appears to be an issue without Ryan De Vries and Emiliano Tade this term. For whatever reason Javier Lopez has barely played recently (although he scored the goal against Southern midweek) and on the basis of what he showed here Patty Lundemo’s gonna struggle to hold a CF position down too. Their best option might be young bloke Maro Bonsu-Maro…
After a scoreless first half, Albert Riera was replaced by Yousif Ali… however it was David Browne who made the difference. Gliding down that left wing he was simply a class above. Especially with his international teammate Tommy Semmy having an oddly quiet game for the other side. Browne must have taken a swig of something tasty at the half because within a few minutes he almost scored one time and then shrugged that off and earned a penalty with a shot that caught Joe Nottage on the arm which he stepped up and buried himself.
City then mixed it up some more by getting a freshly re-signed Darren White some footy ahead of the OCL off the bench as they pushed for more goals. White replaced TAWH, going into right back with Jordan Vale stepping into CB. But fluency up front was tricky to find outside of when the ball was at Browne’s feet. So on came Maro Bonsu-Maro in place of Lundemo… and within seconds he’d scored with a backheel after a scramble at a corner. He scored off the bench against these fellas last time he played them too. And best of all he gave it the old Cristiano celebration when he scored. What a man. Genuinely excited to see him get the chance to start more regularly. He’s got pace, skill, energy, he’s come up through the ranks… get him in there, Ramon.
Dan Morgan had already hit the inside of the post just before that so the second goal was coming. Herbert responded by throwing on Joseph Terry and Rhys Ruka but Terry promptly conceded a penalty. That’s the way it’s been going in defence for HW lately. Terry made a poor touch in the box and then as he went to hack it clear, old mate Darren White stepped in front of him and he unwittingly kicked him over. Cam Howieson took this one, despite Browne still being on the park. Not sure if that was a deliberate rotation (not having the same guy take two spotties in a row where the keeper might learn something for an advantage, dunno) or it Browney just really wanted Cambo to score his second of the season.
There was a bit of face-saving towards the end. Yousif Ali made a rare mistake in the middle and Tommy Semmy slipped it wide to Stafford Dowling then collected the return to score. Weren’t done there either, as a snapshot from Martin Bueno deep into stoppage time, after makeshift CB Jordan Vale had lost the ball in the penalty area, struck Darren White on the arm and the ref, for the third time in the match, pointed to the spot. Bueno scored his 11th of the season.
But there wasn’t time to even threaten a third goal and 3-2 was the way it ended. A little sloppier than usual from City in closing it out but bottom line is that they won their fifteenth game out of sixteen. And the line below the bottom line is that David Browne is an absolute magician who is as good as any attacking player in this league. Shout out to the great nation of Papua New Guinea, with both Semmy and Browne scoring in this game.
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