It was a thrilling weekend of Papua New Guinea National Soccer League action, as the top four teams all played each other, with newcomers Vitiaz United securing an unlikely victory over reigning champions Lae City, allowing Hekari United to pull clear at the top of the league after a late winner against Tusbab Stallions.
Kicking off at 1pm local time in Lae, five-time reigning champions Lae City even enjoyed home advantage, with their opponents, debutants Vitiaz United, having to travel north from Port Moresby ahead of the match.
Lae were boosted before kick-off when they received confirmation that one of their Ecuadorian imports, Gustine Icaza, was cleared to play. The South American actually started the game for the champions before being replaced by Obert Bika shortly before half-time.
However, it was a new kid on the block for Vitiaz United who stole the show: 24-year-old Joel Tiampo, recruited from Eastern Stars, scored either side of half-time to put the visitors into a shock 2-0 lead with half an hour to play. Tiampo plays his regional football with Maclaren in the Port Moresby Soccer Association, and represented Erema FC in the 2017 FFPNG National Premier League.
With time ticking away, Lae’s veteran striker Raymond Gunemba pulled one back for the hosts, but the reigning champions were unable to break the firm Vitiaz resistance in the final moments, giving the debutants a priceless victory, and allowing arch-rivals Hekari United a chance to open up a lead at the top of the division.
However, it was not an easy ride for the eight-time former champions either. Hekari, who had home advantage against a Tusbab Stallions side who had won their previous three matches, scored an early goal to settle some nerves through Patrick Aisa in the 11th minute, but after influential midfielder David Muta limped off with an injury before half-time, the youngsters from Madang began to grow into the game.
Once again, Stahl Gubag was a crucial piece of the Stallions puzzle, and after the side ramped up the pressure on the Hekari goalmouth, the 20-year-old leading NSL scorer buried his sixth goal of the season to level the scores at 1-1.
From that moment, the visitors looked on top, with Hekari seemingly bereft of ideas now that the heartbeat of their team had succumbed to injury. However, Stallions were unable to make a breakthrough, and for a while it looked as if they had managed to secure a memorable draw against the former OFC Champions.
However, deep into injury time, Stallions conceded a free-kick just outside the penalty area. Up stepped stand-in captain Koriak Upaiga, who whipped the ball around the wall and into the corner of the goal, beyond the outstretched arms of Stallions goalkeeper Leehan Manasseh.
Fans of both clubs after the game praised the fight and desire of the Stallions youngsters, and indeed, questions must be asked of Hekari’s future: the core of the side are either close to or over 30 years old: Upaiga and Muta are 32, Michael Foster is 34, Langarap Samol is 30, while Daniel Joe will turn 30 this year. That’s almost half of their starting eleven reaching their peak years or, arguably, already past them. For how much longer will they be able to rely on tried and tested veterans?
In the early kick-off, Morobe Wawens picked up their second win of the season, winning a five-goal thriller in Lae 3-2 against FC Bougainville. Wawens opened up a two goal lead thanks to goals from Sombo Goro and Teddy Tommy in the 16th and 36th minutes respectively, before Daniel Vetali pulled one back for the visitors two minutes later.
Wawens forward Barthy Kerobin pounced on some sloppy Bougainville passing play from the kick-off at the start of the second half to increase their lead to 3-1 and score his second goal of the season, and the side looked comfortable for the remainder of the match. Abel Redenut clawed one back for the visitors on 85 minutes, but it was not enough to give them a way back into the game, Wawens eventually running out 3-2 victors.
Elsewhere, both Morobe United and Gulf Komara picked up their first wins of the season: Jeremy Yasasa scored the only goal of the game as Morobe United defeated FC Kutubu in Lae, while goals from Numa Kila and Jordan Kaven were enough to see Komara win 2-1 against Star Mountain, who scored through Tau Winnie.
Morobe Wawens 3-2 FC Bougainville
Gulf Komara 2-1 Star Mountain
Lae City 1-2 Vitiaz United
Hekari United 2-1 Tusbab Stallions
Morobe United 1-0 FC Kutubu