They say the best teams take constructive criticism and use it to their advantage. Lae City certainly listened to their critics, making five changes to the team that drew 3-3 with Henderson Eels at the weekend, and being immediately rewarded with a handsome first-half performance against Fiji’s Lautoka which eventuated in a 7-0 thrashing of their Group B rivals in the 2020 OFC Champions League.
Whether Coach Peter Gunemba read our analysis of that draw with Henderson Eels, whether he read the social media opinions of fans and armchair critics, or whether he noticed the problems that we had seen himself; the reasons he had for changing the side were not important. What’s important is that he did.
Five changes were made ahead of the Lautoka game, which addressed several of the weaknesses that were identified after the opening fixture of the Champions League on Saturday. In goal, PNG’s number 1 Ronald Warisan was dropped for Matheson Nasa in a move which could signal the end of the former’s international career. Nasa looked assured when coming to claim the ball and made some important saves, but most effective was his distribution: for the most part, short and swift to the full-backs or centre-backs, which allowed the side to produce some fast-paced, direct attacking football, which was simply too much for Lautoka to handle.
Two holes were plugged in defence too: ageing Valentine Nelson and the injured Eddie Managu were replaced by Joshua Oscar and Emmanuel Airem respectively, and despite a wobbly opening twenty minutes (from both sides) at the back, once Lae had scored one, the back four grew more and more confident as the game wore on. In the midfield, Ecuadorians Abdias Aguirre and Gustine Vergara replaced Troy Gunemba and Obert Bika, and it was Aguirre’s introduction which really made the difference, the central midfielder playing a key role in Lae’s opening goal with a deft flick to set up Nigel Dabinyaba, setting the stage for the whitewash which followed.
Despite the changes, however, it was the usual suspects that ended up actually putting the ball in the back of the net: Dabinyaba, Raymond Gunemba, and man-of-the-match Emmanuel Simon all hit a brace, with Obert Bika getting on the scoresheet after he was subbed on late in the first-half. Lae have always had the firepower to be dangerous, and when working together as a team, they were carving the Lautoka defence apart: four goals in a ten minute session after the water break in the first half demonstrated that when the wheels are greased, Lae have one of the best attacks in the competition. It’s noteworthy then, perhaps, that when the game was in the bag, Lae were less successful in front of goal, as individual greed began to triumph over teamwork. Credit to Lae in that they wanted more than seven and continued to attack, but a warning that they were much more potent when combining their talents, rather than attempting individual brilliance.
For Lautoka, questions must be asked of their mentality. For the first twenty minutes of the game, the side more than matched Lae: they looked solid and assured in possession, and while they were unable to create any real chances, they were soaking up the Lae attacks with relative ease and building nicely from the back. However, once Lae had scored twice, they completely collapsed, and turned into a defensive shambles. Too often, simple, quick one-twos from the Lae creative players were able to completely bypass the Lautoka defenders, who looked sluggish, tired and defeated.
Furthermore, the man between the sticks, New Zealand import Liam Anderson, was nowhere to be seen for much of the game. Either Lae’s finishing was superb or Anderson’s goalkeeping was dire, but during Lae’s hot streak at the end of the second half, all of their shots went in: Lae had seven shots on target in the match, and scored seven goals. Only at the very end of the match, when all was already lost, did Anderson show some glimpses of why Lautoka used up a foreign player slot on him, with a couple of excellent blocks.
For Lae, they now know that a draw against Malampa Revivors will be enough to see them through to the next round, and failing a goal fest in the other game, a draw will also see them win the group. Lautoka must take a step back and assess what went wrong, but they’re far from eliminated: a win against Henderson Eels would still see them in pole position to claim qualification in second place.