In what has been almost universally agreed to have been the best match of the 2020 OFC Champions League so far, New Zealand’s debutants Eastern Suburbs defeated former champions Hekari United 2-1 at the Sir John Guise Stadium in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in a match which saw positives and negatives, as well as room for improvement going forward, for both sides.
The match was decided in the first half thanks to two goals from Uruguayan striker Martin Bueno, with Hekari equalising just before half-time through Kolu Kepo, minutes before Bueno scored his second to restore the Kiwis’ lead. Influential Hekari midfielder David Muta was sent off in the 52nd minute for a second bookable offence, which proved a bridge too far for the local favourites.
Tactically, Eastern Suburbs were sound. They recognised the strength that Hekari had in midfield, and sought to cut them out the game with long balls from the goalkeeper and defenders straight up to the attackers. Several times early in the first half, Suburbs’ strikers were caught offside trying to break the offside trap, but they were finally rewarded with Bueno’s opener in the 19th minute after the Hekari defence fell asleep.
Suburbs were, in short, exactly what you would expect from a New Zealand side at this level of competition: assured in possession, solid at the back, and able to take enough chances to seal the game. However, they were nothing special; they at times struggled with the pace of Hekari’s attackers, and wasted a good few chances in front of goal that would have put the game to bed and eased a few nerves in the second half. Furthermore, after their opposition went down to ten men, they became far too passive, looking to see out the match rather than increase their lead, which they may not have gotten away with against a slightly more clinical side.
It will be hugely interesting to see Suburbs against the firepower of Galaxy, who won 4-1 against reigning champions Hienghene Sport, and whether their professional and organised defence will cope with Galaxy’s explosiveness up front.
Hekari United, despite having bigger weaknesses than their opponents, were more exciting to watch. Perhaps it was the reaction of the home crowd every time their men took the ball forward; perhaps it was that feeling you get when rooting for the underdog; either way, the rush of excitement one felt when seeing Kolu or Ati Kepo sprint down the wing past the Suburbs’ defenders was quite something. The fact that even such a solid defence as Suburbs’ was troubled by the pace of the two brothers indicates that Hekari have a real strength there which they should utilise: they face Hienghene Sport on Wednesday, and will be encouraged by the gaping holes the reigning champions left at the back in their opening defeat – perfect holes for the Kepos to run into.
Other positives were the performances of goalkeeper Ishmael Pole and imported midfielder Vinicius Reis, the latter of whom was playing his first game in a Hekari shirt. From the first minute, when a couple of step-overs drew a huge reaction from the crowd, you could sense that Hekari had unearthed a real talent in the Brazilian, and he continued to impress throughout the game, showing a deft reading of the game and assuredness in possession that will be crucial going forward in the competition. Pole, too, was confident and competent, rushing out when needed and showing good handling in under-pressure situations. The 27-year-old must be wondering if it’s time he earns the Number 1 jersey from Ronald Warisan for the national team.
However, questions must be asked of the tactics used in the game, as well as Hekari’s defensive structure off the ball. Coach Jerry Allen decided to play an exceptionally high line in the first half, and there were warning signs in the first twenty minutes as time and again, Suburbs’ strikers were just caught offside when clean through on goal. It was no surprise that the side were able to finally break the offside trap for Suburbs’ opening goal. At this level of competition, with no video assistant to help out, playing the offside trap is very dangerous, for two reasons: firstly, defensive shape and discipline is crucial. Hekari’s centre backs, Daniel Joe and Erick Joe, were often too far apart and unable to fully communicate and keep the high line; secondly, linesmen and referees will get things wrong at this level. Suburbs’ first goal was quite possibly offside, but there was no flag. Despite that, Hekari’s defence stopped playing, and Suburbs were able to score an easy tap in. One of the first rules of the game that you learn as a kid: you play to the whistle. Hekari were guilty of not doing that for the first goal.
Hekari also need to work on their defensive shape and structure. This is perhaps a hangover from their domination of the National Soccer League, and having the lion’s share of possession and attacking chances domestically: Hekari are simply not used to defending. On the ball, the Reds looked dangerous and penetrative, but when defending, they looked to be a little panicky, showing a lack of composure, and often mistiming clearances, which in turn kept the pressure on the defence. Even Brazilian Erick Joe, who has looked tidy in his NSL appearances so far, and was the best defensively against Suburbs as well, was a little ways off his usual solid standard.
This is not the end of the road for Hekari. They had their toughest opponent first, and make no mistake, a 2-1 defeat, while a defeat, is actually an impressive result for any non-NZ side against a NZ side – especially with ten men. But the next match against the reigning champions is now a must-win, and with David Muta suspended, coach Jerry Allen will have his work cut out to find the best formula in the centre of the park, as well as tightening up at the back and maximising the usage of their pace and flair up front. Expect a reaction.