Hekari absentees expose lack of depth as Hienghène title defence on the brink

On Wednesday afternoon, Hekari United and Hienghène Sport played out an entertaining 2-2 draw in Port Moresby in Group A of the OFC Champions League, a result which doesn’t really help either side but does keep both in slight contention to qualify for the knockout stages this coming Saturday.

But neither side will be particularly happy with their performance so far in their opening two matches, having both picked up just one point in two games, and despite a tough group, both will have expected to have done better against the debutants in their group, Eastern Suburbs and ABM Galaxy.

We must not forget that these two sides are the only two in OFC Champions League history outside of New Zealand and Australia to have lifted the trophy at the end of the campaign. While Hienghène’s success came much more recently, this year is the tenth anniversary of Hekari’s success, and the side retain three players who were key to that championship campaign; and therein lies the problem.

The three men are David Muta, Michael Foster, and Koriak Upaiga. It cannot be denied that all three have had illustrious and successful careers, both domestically and internationally, but it also cannot be denied that they are ageing. The fact that Hekari have not found a suitable replacement for David Muta, 32, was blindingly obvious against Hienghène, with the midfield maestro suspended after receiving two yellow cards against Eastern Suburbs on Sunday. The hole was filled in part by Michael Foster, 34, who in his day was a fantastic midfielder – he is the record-holder for international caps for his country, after all – but he really showed his age against Hienghène, and was poor on and off the ball. The club’s reliance on Muta this season and in past seasons has meant that Willie Gia, 28, who also helped fill the hole left by Muta on Wednesday, hasn’t earned nearly enough playing time since signing for the club in 2012, and as such looked in dire need of match fitness against the reigning champions.

Michael Foster found it difficult to fill the hole left by David Muta’s absence. Photo: OFC Media via Phototek

Hekari also lost two men to injury midway through the second half, which also exposed their lack of depth. While still leading 2-1, Brazilian Erick Joe, who scored Hekari’s first goal and has looked solid since his arrival at the club, was clattered by teammate Ishmael Pole as the ‘keeper came to sweep up an attacking through-ball, and had to be substituted. As a result, Otto Kusunan came on at left-back, with captain Koriak Upaiga, moving into the centre. This wasn’t an ideal switch despite Upaiga’s versatility, and may have indirectly led to the confusion in the box shortly before Hienghène were awarded a late penalty to equalise, with players having to adapt to new positions. Patrick Aisa’s injury in the 55th minute also meant that an ineffective Nathan James took his place, while Samoan Vito Laloata didn’t really have enough time to impact the game in the nine minutes of injury time that he was given.

And while he scored from the spot and showed flashes of brilliance and flair throughout the game, Brazilian Vinicius Reis lost his head a little as the second half wore on, as frustration began to grow that Hekari were unable to finish off the game. Vinicius picked up a yellow card for dissent during the second half after a particularly combative confrontation.

Hekari’s Vinicius squares up to Hienghène’s Jordan Dinet midway through the second half. Photo: OFC Media via Phototek

In my preview of the domestic season in Papua New Guinea, I questioned whether Hekari’s reliance on older players would haunt them this year and in years to come. Have those fears been realised under the spotlight of the Champions League? There are young talents in the side, for sure, but the veterans that hold the team together are already past their peak, and no real replacements have been blooded. That needs to change if Hekari are to regain dominance both domestically and continentally in years to come.

For Hienghène, they had problems at both ends of the field. Creatively, they struggled, having had just three shots in the entire game. They were unable to break Hekari’s high line and were often caught offside – captain, Bertrand Kai, 36, was the culprit on several occasions, again bringing into focus how much longer the side should be relying on a player closer to 40 than 30. At the other end of the pitch, they allowed Hekari a host of chances, and with better finishing from their opponents, they could have been well behind at half-time, instead of just trailing by a single goal.

The fighting spirit the side demonstrated to claw the game back to 2-2 was admirable, and shows that the desire to win has not been doused by their triumph last season, but their performance so far in the competition begs the question: have Hienghène remained stagnant in the last year while other clubs from elsewhere have surpassed them? Galaxy, who have looked mightily impressive so far, have shown shrewd recruitment strategy, bringing players from the Solomon Islands, Brazil and even Englishman Terence Carter. Eastern Suburbs built a squad almost from scratch, led by lethal Uruguayan Martin Bueno, who has four goals in two games. Hienghène, meanwhile, are the only side in the group with a team consisting solely of local players. Has this lack of growth and ambition ultimately been their downfall in this year’s competition?

You can check the goals from this match in the video below:


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