The journey is almost complete. Eighty-nine games plus an abandoned one in the can and there are just three more to go. We took the first tentative steps along this expedition in the middle of October and here we are five months later about to wrap it all up. Except for Auckland City and Team Wellington who still have Champions League games to come, such is life.
Both these two semi-finals will be broadcast live on Sky Sports, though they’re also both in Auckland so you Jaffas better get up/down/across to at least one of them. Auckland City will play Team Wellington in one semi-final, which means that either Eastern Suburbs or Canterbury United will be competing in the Grand Final, breaking up that duopoly for the first time since Hawke’s Bay snuck into the big one four years ago. That’s what we’ve got, now here’s how it goes.
EASTERN SUBURBS vs CANTERBURY UNITED
Saturday 2.30pm at Trusts Arena, Auckland
Eastern Suburbs have been one of the most exciting teams to watch the whole way through. They began things with a 5-0 win against Hawke’s Bay and closed with a 3-0 win against Southern, winning plenty more in between. All up they finished with 40 points, locking up second place with a bit of comfort, losing just four times along the way and each one of those four defeats came against Auckland City or Team Wellington. There was a frustrating 0-0 draw against Tasman in there too but otherwise they won every single game. Scored a league high 53 goals and conceded a league low 16.
Their attack is built upon the incredible work of the dream team of Andre De Jong, Callum McCowatt, and Elijah Just. ADJ and CMcC scored a combined 34 goals which is as many as their opponents here Canterbury Utd scored all season. De Jong is the central figure, holding the ball up with expertise and facilitating the play around him. McCowatt then brings the flash and was the regular season golden boot winner with an unbelievable 18 goals in 14 games. Then we’ve got Eli Just, the Assist King. He scores a few himself too but the way he threads that final pass… mate, too good.
And guess what? ADJ is 22 years old, McCowatt is 19, and Just is only 18. That’s been the theme for Danny Hay’s squad. Combining Declan Edge’s Ole Academy with what was already one of the best club hordes of young kiwi talent at Eastern Suburbs, the mission operative has always been to play the local prospects. They give single minute to a single import player all season and they cruised to second place so that tells you all you need to know there.
They’ve got Tim Payne anchoring the defence. Harry Edge anchoring the midfield. Brilliant prospects around them like Nando Pijnaker, Owen Parker-Price, and Dom Woolridge. Keeper Andrew Withers was ever-present this season and only Enaut Zubikarai can match his distribution. Expect a high tempo from Suburbs, pressing as a unit, and switching the ball bravely through Payne. Fullbacks get forward in support. Lots of movement and interplay up front. They’re an enjoyable team for sure.
Canterbury United started off as more of a grinding and functional team but they’ve really found their form over the back half of the season. The Dragons only won two of their first seven games and it took until their eleventh game of the season before they won one by more than a single goal. But winning eight of their last ten games has surged them from outside the top four to a sneaky third place thanks to holding the tiebreaker over Team Welly. And this was with their final game abandoned due to the atrocities that took place in their city. Give nothing to hatred and intolerance.
The only thing with the Dragons is that all four of their defeats came against two teams, same as Suburbs. But not the same two teams as Suburbs. CU beat Team Welly a few weeks back which effectively claimed third place on the ladder. Instead their bogey teams were Auckland City (naturally because everybody lost to undefeated ACFC) and… well, Eastern Suburbs. Yeah that’s not the best indication ahead of this game. They lost 3-1 at home and they lost 5-1 away so it wasn’t even particularly close. Unless you asked Willy Gerdsen, of course.
But again, the Cantabs have been playing their best footy over the last couple months. The midseason signing of Dan McHenery was a massive boost for them, getting a speedy and aggressive right back to complement Aaron Spain on the other side of the park and really get some penetration in their attack. Maksym Kowal and Stephen Hoyle are fantastic pure strikers. They need to be hovering around the penalty area where they can put the ball in the back of the net. English duo Adam Thurston and Gary Ogilvie are great at pressing forwards out of the midfield. With the fullbacks providing the width it all makes sense now.
We’ve also got Conor Tracey here in goal who is sneakily one of the top performing keepers in the competition. Great hands and reactions. Been super impressed by him taking his opportunity to be a full time starter after being a backup for Auckland City last season. Also local creative midfielder Seth Clark has been a marvel and his ability to provide some x-factor goes a long way. They began things with Tom Schwarz and Cory Mitchell in central defence but that duo conceded a bunch of goals and more recently Mitchell’s been a defensive mid while Sean Liddicoat slides into the middle. Good fun.
This game’s being played at Trusts Arena rather than Suburbs’ usual home ground of Riverhills Park (which is only their national league home ground rather than a club home ground – they’re sorta like nomads there… half their team’s based in Wellington anyway so no dramas). That’s a little weird but it should facilitate a bigger crowd and the pitch there is a stunner as long as the weather holds out. Entry is free same as always with these fine folk. Suspect Sky Sports might have had some say in the change of venue but that’s all good, it’s a better ground and Trusts deserves some quality footy after hosting all those Waitakere games.
ES: Withers / Built, Pijnaker, Payne, Withers / Edge, Parker-Price, Woolridge / Just, McCowatt, De Jong
CU: Tracey / McHenery, Schwarz, Liddicoat, Spain / Ogilvie, Mitchell, Thurston / Clark, Kowal, Hoyle
AUCKLAND CITY vs TEAM WELLINGTON
Sunday 2.30pm at Kiwitea Street, Auckland
And then twenty-four hours later we have Auckland City vs Team Wellington. This was the Grand Final the last three years in a row but they meet in the semis this time at the spiritual home of the league’s powerhouse team: Kiwitea Street. Expect noise from that top corner of the stand and expect footballs to find their way over the big fence behind the goal.
Auckland City just polished off the greatest regular season in the league’s history. They drew one game against Southern United in an away game played midweek with a heavily rotated team following some serious world travel and an overloaded fixture list. They won every single other game. A record 52 points out of a maximum 54. They didn’t always win ‘em pretty, with three battling 1-0 wins along the way and a couple comeback wins too, but they always won ‘em. (Except for that one time).
After a 4-3 win in the opening game against Team Wellington they haven’t again conceded more than twice in a game. No dramatic run of clean sheets like last time but that’s forgivable. Enaut Zubikarai is a master in goal. His positioning is almost flawless and his distribution is magnificent. Then you’ve got the silky composure of Angel Berlanga in defence, with Cam Howieson’s passing abilities controlling the middle and that’s one heck of a spine. The only thing missing is a superstar centre forward – with none of last season’s star trio of Ryan De Vries, Emiliano Tade, or Callum McCowatt still at the club. Javier Lopez was signed to be that dude but he can barely make the matchday squad at this point. Instead it’s been a full-scale team approach.
Micah Lea’alafa has been away with the Solomon Islands. He scored in a 3-1 win over Vanuatu and unfortunately they play again on Sunday against Chinese Taipei. Assuming then that he’s unavailable. (On that note, these two games might look rather different if the All Whites had been playing). That’s likely to mean Dylan Manickum and Omar Guardiola doing their thing, with Fabrizio Tavano as a false nine where he’s been superb over the last half of the campaign. The other option is burgeoning Premmy Files superstar Maro Bonsu-Maro, although his flair and energy might be preferred off the bench by Ramon Tribulietx. Definitely one to watch for if we’re still level going deep into the second half.
Because of that mix-and-match nature, ACFC didn’t flourish at the top of the individual goal scoring charts. Javier Lopez was their top scorer with eight goals and I doubt he even plays. Still, they never seemed to have a problem finding a goal when they needed one. The fella who stands above all others there is the magician that is David Browne. Put simply, if he hadn’t missed a bunch of games with injury earlier in the season then he’d be the runaway MVP of this competition. He’s the most talented attacking player out there and it’s only a matter of time before he’s back in the pro ranks overseas so take it in while you can.
Ramon has some decisions to make. With Brian Kaltack out injured it’ll either be Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi or Mario Bilen at the back next to Berlanga. TAHW is maybe a bit too similar of a player to Berlanga to be a perfect defensive partner but then his ability with the ball is more fitting to the team’s style of play and style is king with ACFC. Jordan Vale and Dan Morgan should be the fullbacks, a couple of enterprising and reliable lads especially when getting forwards. Then it’s a matter of whether the Yousif Ali or Albert Riera starts as the defensive midfielder. The young buck or the elder statesman. Toss a coin, pretty much.
Everyone knows what to expect from Auckland City. Heaps of possession and passing with a high defensive line and fluidity in the attacking third. Tribulietx is probably the only manager in this competition who gets to have genuine debates about selection each week with the depth that City possesses. His counterpart here, Jose Figueira, also has a specific style of play with a 3-4-3 shape that allows creativity from the fullbacks and a great distribution of players around the field in possession. They’ve got a powerful midfield and an organised defence.
But they’ve lost a lot of players along the way. From their starting team at the Club World Cup, Justin Gulley has signed with the Phoenix. Mario Barcia has left for a pro contract in Indonesia. Scott Hilliar and Hamish Watson are playing club footy in Australia. That’s a lot of reshaping on the fly that needs doing. To be fair they’ve made a couple brilliant signings with Joel Stevens and Adam Mitchell coming in, as well as a bit of defensive nous with the re-signing of Bill Robertson (who’s been dumped by Hawke’s Bay and Waitakere and could now start a semi-final instead… last laugh to Billy).
Ross Allen scored bundles in the Champions League and should start up front, although don’t be surprised if he’s subbed early if it’s not going the right way. Angus Kilkolly and Nati Hailemariam are likely to be on the bench and that’s too much firepower not to utilise. They could make space for one of them or Joel Stevens (who has only started one Premmy game since returning) by playing Mario Ilich in defence instead of midfield but I’d imagine they need him where he is and will start Bill Robertson at the back with Mitchell and Taylor Schrijvers. Jack-Henry Sinclair at right back. Scott Basalaj in goal (if he’s fit and available – Basalaj has missed four of the last six Premiership games).
Alex Palezevic is an impressive kiwi midfielder. Aaron Clapham is on a crazy resurgence after being effectively retired at the start of the season. Then there’s new captain Andy Bevin whose sly vision and subtle movement can unlock any defence. Whether Eric Molloy or Henry Cameron starts at left back might depend on what side of the bed Jose gets out of on Sunday.
Both of these two teams have shown a tendency towards uncharacteristic mistakes lately. This could be a game with plenty of goals or it could be a conservative affair where they each try to cover those faults right up. They played each other two weeks ago and Auckland City won it with a double from Maro Bonsu-Maro. That was the second of two consecutive 2-1 defeats from Team Welly, the first being away to Canterbury United. After a run of draws in the middle of the season (affected by the Club World Cup), they’d flourished at the Champions League only to come back and lose to two of their closest rivals. They bounced back nicely to win 4-2 against Hamilton Wanderers on the weekend however the previous two games cost them a shot at third place which would have put them up against Eastern Suburbs instead… a team they’ve beaten both times this season.
Current form definitely favours the home side. But both the beauty and the tragedy of the semi-final format is that it doesn’t matter what happened last week or last month or last year… the next game means absolutely everything.
AC: Zubikarai / Vale, Berlanga, Hudson-Wihongi, Morgan / Riera, Howieson, Browne / Tavano, Lea’alafa, Guardiola
TW: Basalaj / Robertson, Schrijvers, Mitchell / Sinclair, Ilich, Palezevic, Cameron / Clapham, Bevin, Allen
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