This season’s had all sorts of funky narratives but the one that matters most is this: Who can stop Auckland City? Like an asteroid heading for the Planet Earth, the Navy Blues just continue on their path unobstructed. This week they faced one of their toughest hurdles yet, down in Christchurch to play Canterbury United, and once again they found a way to keep their perfect record intact.
This game had to be moved forwards 24 hours because of Auckland City’s involvement in the ‘Tonghai Financial Chinese New Year Cup’ later this week (first game’s on Tuesday night, we’ll talk more midweek) and there seemed to be a hint of one eye peeking at future appointments here looking at the teamsheet. For the first time all season Takuya Iwata started ahead of Jordan Vale, while Dan Morgan was also rotated out for Alfie Rogers to get a go. Injury to Reid Drake means he’s out of action for a spell so Fabrizio Tavano slipped back into the midfield and in came Patrick Ludenmo, the Swede with his club debut after signing in the New Year. Superstar playmaker David Browne, who is up there with the most exciting dudes in the comp on current form, was left on the bench with Dylan Manickum starting. Oh and Angel Berlanga was rested. First game he’s missed in 2018-19.
You may recall that City pumped the Dragons 4-1 at Kiwitea Street earlier in the season but that game could have gone a different way if it weren’t for Adam Thurston’s 22nd minute red card. Call it unfinished business then, the Dragons came out looking sharp and it contributed to a fast-paced first half. A flurry of corners gave Canterbury a few threats. Gary Ogilvie was pulling strings. Maksym Kowal was throwing himself about. But this ACFC defence is on a whole new level and they deal with that kinda thing for breakfast.
All even at the break then and that will have given the hosts a boost. It should have given everyone a boost, here was a chance for City to finally drop some points. Micah Lea’alafa and Stephen Hoyle traded chances. Still 0-0.
Then on came David Browne off the bench and on came Maro Bonsu-Maro soon after. Browne might be the hero but it’s youth grad MBM who has pedigree when it comes to breaking up a 0-0 game off the bench. He scored the winner against Hamilton Wanderers in a 1-0 win a while back and he did the same here, his 69th min strike the only goal. Kowal went close again late on but 1-0 to ACFC was the way it ended.
I don’t need to do the math here because ACFC’s website already did it…
AucklandCityFC.com: “The victory means Auckland City FC have lost just once in 31 games since October 15, 2017, when Team Wellington defeated them 3-1. The defeat in question was the 3-0 reverse to Tasman United following an administrative error in December 2017, a match Auckland City FC originally won 3-1 but were forced to turnover. Since then the Navy Blues have racked up 18 consecutive wins and have shown no sign of slowing down since. Alongside their domestic efforts they've also gone 25 matches undefeated in the OFC Champions League, just two short of equalling their own record of 27, set four years ago.”
Technically that OCL streak includes a defeat over two legs on away goals to Team Welly but I’m gonna let them have that one since both individual legs were draws. And anyway, winning 18 consecutive games (including a grand final and semi-final) is quite honestly incredible. The remainder of their season sees them play Wellington Phoenix (H), Southern United (A), Hamilton Wanderers (H), Team Wellington (A) and Waitakere (H). Who’s stopping them from that lot?
Team Welly will be the team that fancies it most. They travelled up to Napier after going three games without a win, really needing to regather their old form, and they did so without captain Justin Gulley and arguably their best player in Mario Barcia, both of whom left for professional contracts in the midweek (Barcia was absent last week too). You know all about Gulley who’s back with the Wellington Phoenix, while Barcia has joined the curiously named Semen Padang in Indonesia. Best of luck to the both of them… and good thing Joel Stevens is back in black and yellow.
Marcel Kampman got a go in goal here. Always cool when the reserve keeper gets to actually apply some dirt to their jersey. Other than that it was as expected with Liam Wood and Alex Palezevic already tabbed as replacements for the two chaps that left, although Angus Kilkolly again got the start ahead of Hamish Watson. Interesting one with Watto, who has now gone three games in a row out of the starters having been the leading goal scorer for the first half of the season.
If Team Welly stumbled again then opponents Hawke’s Bay United would have been in a tasty position just four points back on their fourth placed visitors. Semi-final spots well up for grabs. Instead they conceded six goals and lost again.
Aaron Clapham slammed in the opener in the 13th minute and HBU fought back to tie it up after half an hour with Sam Mason-Smith adding another to his impressive season’s tally (this was one of his easier ones, about as easy as it gets after with a cheeky stab with the quad following a defensive error). But Angus Kilkolly scored from Clapham’s cross two minutes later and then it got ugly. Jack-Henry Sinclair and Andy Bevin each scored before the break then Clapham got a second immediately after it. 5-1 to Team Wellington and the defensive dramas continue for The Bay.
Cory Chettleburgh and Maxime Olivieri each scored late on to help things but in between sub Ross Allen slotted a penalty for the TeeDubs. 6-3 the final score. Good fun for Team Welly who surge back to their best, scoring more than twice in a game for the first time since week five against Southern (excluding CWC). Aaron Clapham’s twilight resurgence continues with another commanding performance and these were his first two Premmy goals this season. Kilkolly and Sinclair each with their fourth of the campaign – JHS with four goals from wingback is a sneaky impressive one. And with these three points they’re back into third place knowing that two more wins will secure a semi-final spot… and they have five games to achieve that starting on Wednesday night against the WeeNix. Might get a midweek Premmy Files to celebrate.
But for HBU this is another embarrassing one. You can say things about semi-final chances dying but when you’ve conceded 19 goals in four games (all against fellow playoff contenders) then you never really had any chances to begin with. 12 out of 14 games they’ve leaked at least two. Defenders have come and gone and the one constant is that Hawke’s Bay keep on letting goals past them. Still, here are three consolations to help ease the frustration:
1 – Paul Ifill came off the bench late on, his first appearance since getting injured against Tasman seven games ago. Saint Paul performs yet another miracle.
2 – At the start the dudes at the back were mostly underperforming imports. Now at least they’re young locals who can learn lessons from this and come back better. According to the Hawke’s Bay Times their backline this week was: Alexander Britton (GK / 19yo), Jorge Akers (18yo), Ben Lack (19yo), James Marsh (23yo) and Karan Mandair (18yo). Mandair is usually an attacking mid so if he was at right back instead of Birhanu Taye then maybe that contributed to a bit of all this… but these lads are in it for the long haul, they’ll keep scrapping for the club.
3 – Sam Mason-Smith is unstoppable and has scored in eight of his last nine games. He’s top of the golden boot standings with 12 strikes and he doesn’t have to face another top four side now so he’ll probably add a few more to that total. Looking good for the First XI of the Premmy Files Team of the Season, that fella.
Southern came to the party with another lovely live stream from Forsyth Barr this week, a stadium they haven’t lost at for over a full year (granted, they don’t play there as often as they’d like). They also sprung a brow-raiser in the starting XI with new signing Conor McDonald included in the midfield – another Irishman, as you’ll not be surprised to hear. He came in for Markus Fjortoft, with Sam Pickering sliding back to left-back in the only change from the team that denied Team Wellington with a 0-0 draw last week.
Waitakere always make changes now that Chris Milicich is rolling through the young bloods these days, so Jake Mechell, Dane Schnell, and Niko Steinmetz all came back into the fold – Steinmetz in place of the suspended Luke Jorgensen at right back with a new look defence beginning to form that sees Kris Carpenter, Reilly O’Meagher and Lachie McIsaac filling out the back four and Nick Draper in goal. Having said that, it’s the relative veteran Andrew Abba who’s been their most dangerous player the last few weeks. Same with Garbhan Coughlan for Southern. It was just a matter of which striker struck first…
Sure enough, in a half which probably saw Waitakere shade things (albeit with decent assaults upon both goals), Abba was the bloke who slipped in the opening goal in the 40th minute following a majestic ball over the top from Nacho Maturena. Abba had already hit the post once while Bassett and Mechell had gone close so it was coming one way or another.
But then Southern nearly hit back immediately. McDonald stormed out of defence and played a sharp one-two with Coughlan (who else?) only for Nick Draper to get out quickly and deny him one on one, then making the save from Al-Kalisy’s ambitious curler off the rebound. Drapes went and made an even better save in injury time to deny Ben Deeley. Good competitive first half there.
Cheeky sub from Paul O’Reilly at the break with Ben Wade replacing Sam Pickering. It meant Captain O’Keeffe switched to left back and Ben Deeley, who’d been sharp in the first forty-five, chopped back into an attacking right back role. It seemed to do the trick, as Southern survived some sketchy moments after the restart to come home strong with a commanding last 35 minutes or so. It was Conor McDonald who levelled it on his debut. Lovely little finish and we were all tied up in the 64th min. In off the post and not even Nick Draper could do a thing about that.
Draper might have been able to prevent the winner, to be fair, rushing out on Garbhan Coughlan and taking him out with a sturdy shoulder leading to a penalty with 77 mins gone. Can’t be too harsh on Drapes though, it was a great run from Coughlan and an absolutely delicious ball from Abdullah Al-Kalisy who, playing in a central number 10 role here, continues to impress at every opportunity. One of the more exciting dudes in the league just as Coughlan is one of the best finishers… so Coughers dutifully made it 2-1 from the spot.
Waitakere threw blokes forward to try and salvage something and they caused some headaches. Didn’t stop Danny Ledwith feeding in sub Azaraiah Soromon in stoppage time for a possible third but the Vanuatu forward’s shot fizzed wide across the goal. Never mind, Southern killed this thing off with professional precision… you know, apart from Oli Bassett’s blocked strike at the far post. And Andrew Abba’s header off the crossbar from the resulting corner… but otherwise they were solid and clung on for a 2-1 win. Seven points from three straight games at Forsyth Barr. As for the Waitaks that’s eight defeats in their last nine now. Yet another game where a strong first half was wasted by a sloppy second.
Lots going on as Wellington Phoenix hosted Tasman United at Jerry Collins Stadium in Porirua. The Tasman coach Andy Hedge is a former WeeNix boss. Both Jake Williams and Keegan Smith used to play for the WeeNix. And Callan Elliot obviously made his name with Tasman. All in good spirits though… sort of.
Ben Waine and Will Ebbinge had the best chance of the first half. Waine stole the ball from old (young) mate Keegan but chose to pass to Ebbinge with only the keeper to beat. Then Ebbinge inexplicably passed it back to him. Waine finally shot but he hit it too close to Smith who made a great save to deny the WeeNix the lead. Somehow. Love the composure in front of goal but sometimes you’ve just gotta have a crack… and they paid for that in first half stoppage time when Kiernan Hughes-Mason scored acrobatically from about four yards out. Clever finish, lad.
Things then started getting a bit feisty with tackles flying in and both sides had their fair share to complain about. Tasman were largely in control by now but weren’t able to put the icing on the cake with a second, Max Winterton hitting the crossbar with the closest attempt. And you know what happens when teams don’t take their chances… Ben Waine skipped through and equalised with maybe five minutes left and the WeeNix had their second positive result of the season. Tasman should’ve really held on for the win but at least they’re now four games undefeated. Come a long way from where they began – eight points in four after four points from their previous 10 games.
Which takes us to the final game where Eastern Suburbs hosted Hamilton Wanderers in front of the telly cameras at Riverhills Park. Suburbs who lost 3-2 to ACFC last week but they haven’t gone consecutive games without a win all season so always gonna be a tough gig for the Tron Wands. Ricki Herbert will have let out a sigh of relief with Matt Oliver’s return to the eleven, while Adam Luque got a rare start and new fella Martin Maybin was also out there for kickoff. Suburbs were the same as they have been most weeks in 2019 with Dalton Wilkins back amongst the starters.
For about half an hour it was all Suburbs and it felt like a matter of time until they broke the deadlock. Hamilton were playing disciplined with their shape, learning from the defensive disaster of the first half against HBU last week, but they weren’t so disciplined in their tackles. Yellow cards were racked up as their physicality was about all that was slowing down some lovely ball movement from the home side. Eventually that cost a terrible price when Jordan Shaw saw red for a second yellow after leaving his sprigs in on Mike Built’s shin. It was a second yellow but it could as easily have been a straight red. Hamilton’s fifth red card of the season… might have an issue there.
Funny thing was, they then went and took the lead straight away. Having been getting rather well dominated with eleven, it only took two minutes with ten men before some sharp work from Martin Bueno saw him beat a few defenders on the half and then slide in Tommy Semmy… who was barged down by Tim Payne. Needless challenge with Semmy running away from goal and definitely a foul, although replays suggested that foul occurred outside the box. Still, don’t bowl dudes over and you don’t have a problem. Bueno casually deposited the ball in the bottom left corner and then casually ran over to the sideline and gave his missus a hug in classic NZ Premmy fashion. At least the ref had a heart and didn’t book him for it.
If they’d held on ‘til the break then it might have been interesting. But they didn’t even hold on to a 1-1 ‘til the break. Callum McCowatt was fed by Eli Just and he lashed in the equaliser in the 42nd minute and then CMcC had a double in stoppage time after a slinky one-two with Just, drifting across the defence long enough to find the room to pick out the bottom corner shooting back across goal. A rapid double for McCowatt and two more assists for Eli Assist King Just.
You reckon that was nice? The third goal was utterly magical. Only a couple mins into the second half and Woolridge picked up the ball on the right side. He fed an inlet to McCowatt, who flicked it behind himself with the outside of his boot. Andre De Jong then dummied clean over it which put Eli Just through on goal and although Oliver got a touch on it he couldn’t stop it. Tell you what, the fourth wasn’t bad either with Just chipping one over to ADJ who whipped it in on the volley.
This was Eastern Suburbs at their best, scoring goals for fun and making the difficult look easy. They’d cool off after this onslaught and the second half became a little bit of a drag until Tommy Semmy cracked one off the outside of the post and Suburbs responded by going up the other end and scoring a fifth – Just with a first-time curler past Oliver. Poor old Matty Oliver had a really good game in goal too, they might have conceded five but he stopped it from being eight or nine. His save to deny McCowatt a hatty right at the death was a memorable one.
5-1 to Suburbs means Suburbs have scored 26 goals in their last six games. With the Cantabs and Team Welly each dropping points recently (CU losing 5-1 to Suburbs two weeks back), Danny Hay’s lot are clear in second and looking good for a home semi… they’re already guaranteed a semi-final one way or another. The game away to Team Wellington next week is looking like a preview of those semis. Massive implications!
We’ve also got a funky looking golden boot race on the cards with Sam Mason-Smith’s lead with 12 goals pretty fragile as long as Andre De Jong and Callum McCowatt (11 each) keep doing what they’re doing. Garbhan Coughlan and Martin Bueno are each on 10 while Stephen Hoyle is hanging close with nine. But there’s no race for the Assist King title, nobody’s keeping those stats but if they did I guarantee you Eli Just would have, like, double the amount of anyone else. I’m not exaggerating when I say if you had footage of every Suburbs goal he’d probably have assisted 20 of them. Which is basically half and don’t forget he’s scored seven of them himself. Methinks he may not be long for these humble shores.
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