There are no more promises at this stage of the season. Past results mean little as the entire five months leading up to this point can be wasted away by a single mistake, a single moment of brilliance, and replaced with bitter disappointment. Eighteen games each leading up to it but only the next ninety (to 120) minutes matter anymore.
Eastern Suburbs took their home semi to Trusts Arena over on the other side of town. Waitakere’s home ground. A bit of an odd one but the field there is usually excellent and Canterbury United were flying up from Christchurch to Auckland regardless so it doesn’t make things any easier for them. Nor did facing a team that they’d conceded eight goals against in their two meetings this term.
Both of these teams have been pretty consistent in terms of team selection this season, relying on the same key players the whole way and getting great benefits from that. However each side made a curious team selection or two for the semi-final. For Suburbs there was never any doubt about the dream team up front of Eli Just, Callum McCowatt, and Andre De Jong. But in midfield Danny Hay went with the aggressive approach of the more attack-minded Mohamed Awad in place of Dom Woolridge who had started the previous ten games in a row before being dropped to the bench for the win over Southern last week. Owen Parker-Price and Harry Edge alongside.
Then Dalton Wilkins was recalled as expected but a slight surprise that Kelvin Kalua edged out Michael Built again. Having said that, Kalua stepped up big time while Nando Pijnaker was out injured and even as Pijnaker returned to full fitness and the starting lineup these last three games, Kalua has remained in the first XI, at first in place of a suspended Tim Payne and then at right back for the next two. Can’t really argue with a bloke who commands selection. Kalua was an impressive performer last season and has continued to impress in his first full season at the top in Aotearoa.
Over on the other side things were more tactical. Instead of playing on the left of the expected back four, Aaron Spain was pushed forwards to a sort of left-wing position, albeit with a licence to roam. He’s quick and he’s sharp so he’ll get himself involved regardless but that was a curious one. With Andreas Wilson at left back it felt like a matter of having two defensively minded brains on the same wing to counter the threat of Callum McCowatt/Elijah Just but then the Suburbs forwards drift so much that it would have been a lost cause. Instead it was done so they could sit in as a 4-4-2 without possession. Possibly even a 4-5-1 with the way Kowal was dropping so deep at times. Big gig for Wilson who had only started two games all regular season (although he popped up off the bench a few times, including their last two contests - must be tough for him having been such an influential player a couple years ago).
Whatever the plan was from Willy Gerdsen, early doors it was all Eastern Suburbs in this one. Callum McCowatt was on another level, buzzing all over the place and bringing the flair to Trusts Arena. They had Dalton Wilkins sneaking forward and linking up. The midfield battle was a no contest with OPP, Edge, and Awad all getting involved. Only thing was they were pretty well focussed on that left wing of attack (limiting Eli Just’s impact) and that was reflective of Suburbs in general. They were absolutely blistering with their pace and energy, pressing high against their opponents… but also a little lacking in variety at the same time. They were hesitant to shoot, for example. A little too persevering with the quick one-twos around the box which the Cantabs were largely able to stifle by crowding the area with a deep midfield.
Maybe that would have paid off eventually but Suburbs also have a tendency to start halves at a rapid clip and then tail off towards the end of them. Which is no dramas because when they dominate they tend to score and when they score they tend to score again. Yet Canterbury, thanks in large part to the excellent positioning and control of centrebacks Tom Schwarz and Sean Liddicoat, rode through it. Schwarz, an English import, has been doing it all season so no surprises there but Liddicoat has usually been a fullback and only eased central over the second half of the campaign. Shout out to him. And of course there were the big black gloves and big black boots of keeper Conor Tracey, who made a couple quality saves to continue on the form that has seen him as quite possibly the best performing goalie in the comp in 2018-19. Very high chance of making my season’s first XI. Also his fashion sense is top notch. Bring back the black gloves. Lev Yashin would be proud.
Thus we hit the sheds at even stevens. The Dragons were definitely feeling better about it all, especially as they’d flashed a couple hints that they could do something on the break. Stephen Hoyle holding the ball up nicely when he had the opportunity.
Yet this game took a massive shift five minutes into the second half when Sean Liddicoat went down hurt and immediately signalled to the bench. When you can’t go, you can’t go. But Canterbury didn’t have a CB replacement on the bench. No Cory Mitchell. Instead Luke Tongue was the bloke who replaced him, an attacking midfielder, with Aaron Spain going back to fullback and Dan McHenery sliding into the middle.
It was a mix-and-match solution and within three minutes Schwarz got caught on the ball by Awad and ADJ, with De Jong blitzing forward and McCowatt in support with McHenery completely exposed at the back. ADJ faked a couple times and then slammed it past Tracey for the opening goal. McHenery could have gotten a little tighter to him but then that would have meant McCowatt one on one instead with a simple pass. Ultimately it was one mistake that cost them but it was one mistake that came as the defence was being reshuffled amidst one horrible bit of luck. If Liddicoat had stayed on then who knows if the Dragons could have repeated their first half shutdown heroics, maybe not. But the fact is they conceded while they were vulnerable. Full credit to Suburbs on the ruthless precision though, that’s how you qualify for grand finals.
That opened up the game. Canterbury had to press forwards and create something… and they did. They finally got Suburbs onto the back foot and gave their defence something to worry about with crosses into the area and some nice links in the attacking third. Seth Clark had a crack that went wide. Tim Payne and Nando Pijnaker won some headers. All the while Suburbs, who made a few changes at fullback and one more in the middle, kept their front three on the edges where they could threaten on the break and McCowatt especially should have finished this contest off.
But he didn’t and it remained 1-0. It then remained 1-0 some more as Adam Thurston unleashed a monster effort from range that almost snapped the crossbar in half and Andrew Withers was a little lucky the ball didn’t hit his back as he dove in vain and roll in for an own goal.
That was the margin between the teams. Suburbs held on to claim their first grand final spot, already going one better than last year, with Andre De Jong scoring the lone goal against an old team of his. He then got interviewed by his dad in the post-match which must have been awkward.
These knockout games can be ruthless but the best team won here. Not only that but the Dragons, who remember lost 5-1 last time they played this team, played as well as they could as a team and can honestly feel like if the tea leaves had shown a different image then they might have won it. Gotta be proud of that effort. Although I didn’t much rate Gerdsen’s subs, taking off Seth Clark and Maksym Kowal at a time when they were chasing a goal – even if neither really played at their best under the circumstances. They were forced into doing way too much defending to be able to play to their strengths, Kowal in particular. But that’s the way it goes.
Can’t wait to see how Suburbs go in the final now. A bunch of these lads were in the Western Suburbs team that lost in the Chatham Cup final so they know what it means to get this close and return empty handed. But that’s a matter for the Premmy Files Grand Final Preview in a day or two.
Thus we move to the centre of town, Kiwitea Street to be specific. Auckland City undefeated in all eighteen games with a record points tally from the season past. Team Wellington who had been up and down the whole way with the welcome distractions of the Club World Cup and OFC Champions League getting in the way of their domestic affairs. The two finalists from the last three seasons.
Team Wellington needed this. One aspect that I’ve not talked much about is that the Champions League spots go to the minor premiership winner and the grand final winner with the second spot going to the second place regular season jokers if the same team wins both. So ACFC have already qualified but Team Welly have to win the whole thing to get back there next time. Eastern Suburbs, as the second placed finishers, would have qualified with an ACFC win here, otherwise they’d need to win the title.
From the eleven that gave AFC a real scare in a 4-3 defeat in the opening game of the campaign, the TeeDubs have lost Justin Gullley, Scott Hilliar, Mario Barcia, and Hamish Watson to other clubs. One of the obvious candidates at the back to replace those two defenders was Liam Wood and he’s out injured. And that case got even worse as new signing Adam Mitchell, an All White international, was ruled out with a groin strain. So Alex Palezevic had to slip into the backline just as he did in that season opener when he looked pretty drastically out of position. But Palezevic is a bloody excellent young kiwi footballer who has been a feature in the midfield over the season. Not sure how many other times he’s had to sit in defence but, spoiler alert, safe to say he didn’t put a foot wrong in this game.
Beside him were Bill Robertson and Taylor Schrijvers. Mario Ilich was in midfield with Aaron Clapham despite Ilich being more adept at CB than Palezevic (but the right call, I’d suggest – Ilich’s presence as a defensive midfielder has been crucial to this team’s success the last two years). Eric Molloy got the nod over Henry Cameron at fullback, with Jack-Henry Sinclair on the other side. Angus Kilkolly started instead of Ross Allen. Nati Hailemariam also remained amongst the starters.
For the home side, they were basically as expected. Te Atawhai-Hudson Wihongi at CB with Brian Kaltack out. Albert Riera started over Yousif Ali. Fabrizio Tavano as an attacking midfielder. David Browne and Dylan Manickum. And, best of all, Maro Bonsu-Maro was named to start at centre-forward after his breakout season.
This game started similarly to the other semi-final. Auckland City had a lot of possession and they spent a lot of that time in the opposition half, with David Browne playing the Callum McCowatt role (and then some). Browne has such a sharp and deceptive change of direction and the way he skipped past defenders was a sight to see. But his mates around him just wanted to shoot at any opportunity. Bit odd for the often patient ACFC, actually. Tavano was a major culprit but he wasn’t alone.
Still, you don’t shoot and you probably don’t score so it was nice to see City bringing the urgency. Scott Basalaj didn’t think so, audibly dropping an F-bomb in range of the telly mics to suggest his defence refrain from allowing such space on the edge of the area. Always love a bit of chaos in the stoically refined world of live television, myself. Scotty B didn’t have too much to worry about with the wayward quality of some of those shots to be fair.
And just like the Cantabs, Team Welly managed to stay compact and composed during the worst of it and as the half progressed it all got easier. They pushed David Browne wide out on the left and the back three looked solid. Team Welly even began to string some stuff together themselves, more than Canterbury did in similar circumstances, with that 3-4-3 shape (described by Jose Figuiera beforehand as a 3-2-3-1 or something like that, can’t remember – these things are all subjective because players do kinda move around during games, you know) providing the usual passing options to weave their way up the paddock. One thing that was really noticeable was how far forward Jack-Henry Sinclair was pushing up on the left hand side against a team that only really had the fullbacks patrolling those wide areas.
To tell the truth there was a lot of reason for panic amongst the ACFC crowd as their team failed to turn their pressure into serious chances and never looked a hundy percent solid at the back. Sure enough, 35 minutes gone, Eric Molloy got up that right hand flank (usually JHS plays on the right and Cameron/Molloy on the other side, but they’ve been known to switch in big games before). Molloy shaped up on Dylan Manickum and threw a couple dummies which Manickum bit upon. Big mistake. In came the cross as Manickum had his back turned trying to recover his footing and it struck him on the arm.
Felt like a harsh penalty at first but that was only because of the angle of the telly cameras. The replays cleared that one up completely. Block a cross/shot with an outstretched arm and they’re gonna give it. Seen heaps of them lately around the world – the one in the PSG vs Man Utd game springs to mind – and the trend continued here. There are huge problems with the handball rule as it stands, with an adjustment to it coming soon apparently. That whole ‘deliberate’ thing, for example. Trying to put definitive readings on what’s always a murky situation. But I’ve got no problem with this interpretation. Angus Kilkolly stepped up and he slotted the bugger like it was a kickaround after training.
1-0 down at the break, City needed to find a way to get Browne involved on the end of attacking plays and not the beginning of them. His Eden Hazard impersonation works both ways, we see Hazard struggling to create things from deep for Chelsea like this too in a way that’s a lot easier to defend. Maro Bonsu-Maro was also well marshalled by TW, unable to use his pace to get in behind and while he had some nice touches it was a quiet one from him. Even got booked for diving.
At 1-0 you still expected them City to come back and win it. But then came a moment of magic ten minutes into the second half. Scott Basalaj has a right boot so powerful he should work for Rocket Lab launching footballs into space or something. He gave lift-off to a deep free kick inside his own penalty area and it floated all the way over the City defence to where JHS was running on. Jordan Vale misread it and allowed Sinclair to run in behind. Jack-Henry’s first touch was a thing of majestic grace, allowing him to get on the right side of TAHW. The finish past Zubikarai, I mean, after all that had preceded it the finish was merely routine. He may be a wing-back in this team but Sinclair scored five goals in the regular season and set up plenty more. A genuine attacking weapon. At 2-0 we had ourselves a serious chance at an upset.
Ramon Tribulietx subbed on Omar Guardiola for Dylan Manickum to get a bit of extra directness in the team but by then the side were already a little shellshocked. Albert Riera is one who has to be singled out, sadly. The dude is a legend of this league but he got dominated by the crafty Andy Bevin at the base of City’s midfield. And Tavano had too many poor touches/passes ahead of him. Just too many fellas not quite at their best for a variety of reasons.
Still, City don’t go easy into the dark night. When they finally stopped pissing around with trick corner routines that do nothing, David Browne lifted a perfect ball right onto Angel Berlanga’s head and it was 2-1 with twenty minutes left.
You don’t get to say this very often about a visiting team at Kiwitea Street, but Team Wellington and Jose Figuiera got the better of the substitute battle. With the game in the balance, Jose was able to introduce Joel Stevens and Ross Allen to keep the pressure on while Ramon just got weird with Mario Bilen coming on at right back and then Alfie Rogers at centreback. Surely Reid Drake as an extra midfielder would have been more useful? He did change formation to a back three to allow an extra man forward but despite the famous depth of ACFC… they weren’t able to change the course of the game with their bench.
Yousif Ali’s missed the last couple games so gonna assume he was injured. Fully understand Albert Riera’s big game presence ahead of a younger, more energetic option, but Ali might have been pretty useful in that second half. Of course, the bloke they missed the most was Micah Lea’alafa who was away with the Solomon Islands on international duty. Because the Solomon Islands played twice this international break and the All Whites haven’t played since last June. But yeah, Micah had a frustratingly limited season with a chunk of the season missed for logistical reasons and now this. Five goals in nine starts is the kind of strike rate they could have used against the TeeDubs, not to mention his ability to create something out of nothing.
Eventually City’s necessary ventures forward left them exposed at the back and that was when, fittingly, TW’s two subs combined to end this one once and for all in injury time. Ross Allen in space, passes to Joel Stevens. Bloody get in there you little champion! Even the City diehards knew that was it. Seventeen wins and a draw in the regular season but it all came to a crashing halt in the semi-final. One game undoes so much of that work. Not all of it – they got a Champions League place for their efforts – but yeah that’s gotta be a tough one to take. Although mostly because of the way they played on the day (or the way they were forced to play by their opposition), they knew what the rules were before it all started after all.
It’s not like City played poorly. They simply weren’t at their immense best while Team Wellington played out of their skins. Jack-Henry Sinclair and Andy Bevin were absolutely magnificent. Can’t say enough about how a makeshift backline (with a midfielder and a recent recruit who’s been cut by two rivals in the last twelve months in there) was able to nullify Auckland City and at Kiwitea Street of all places. They never lose at Kiwitea Street, mate (administrative errors notwithstanding).
But Team Wellington took their chances when they came across them while ACFC weren’t able to turn their pressure into goals, that’s the difference. I don’t think it’s a case of City taking their eyes off the ball, underestimating their opponents, getting too used to winning, or anything like that. But I do sorta think this one had been coming. They’d had games this season where they weren’t at their best and managed to sneak a goal to win it. The 1-0 against Hamilton Wanderers is one. The 1-0 against Canterbury Utd another. The draw with Southern was a similar thing too. They never had the same lockdown defence of last season, only keeping one clean sheet in the back half of the season, and without having adequately replaced Emiliano Tade they were always a little vulnerable to something like this. Just goes to show once again that football doesn’t care… and that’s the most beautiful thing about the game. In fact I believe that’ll be my new catchphrase.
This was a massive result and a brilliant game of knockout, all-or-nothing, maximum-stakes football. Does some funky things for the Champs League too because it’s now all or nothing next week as the winner lifts the Premiership trophy and qualifies for the OCL both while the loser gets nothing. Runners-up medals, maybe. If NZF can afford them. Either way that’s now a genuinely open final in which it’s hard to pick a winner. Cannot wait. Preview coming either Tuesday or Wednesday.
The Niche Cache pretty much depends on your support as a reader to be able to fund this bad boy but that’s cool coz all it takes is a dollar or two a month on Patreon to get us sizzling
And whack an and whenever you read something decent and we’ll be away running
Keep cool but care