Hekari United of Papua New Guinea secured their first win of the competition earlier today, defeating the thus far impressive Galaxy FC 2-1. However, due to Eastern Suburbs victory against reigning champions Hienghène Sport in the early kick-off, this was not enough to see them progress to the knockout stages.
Hekari will see their failure to defeat Hienghène Sport as the key moment in their campaign, with Galaxy and Eastern Suburbs both able to put four goals past the reigning champions, while Hekari could only manage a 2-2 draw.
Both sides knew going into the game that only a three-goal (or more) victory for Hekari would see the two sides switch places in the group standings, so while Hekari pressed from the first moment to get the goals they required, Galaxy began the game calmly and patiently in possession, frustrating the Hekari attack with some solid defensive work and some nice touches in the midfield.
Eager to score the first goal, Hekari began the game with a few pot-shots from outside the box, with Michael Foster getting a few of them close to the goal. However, this tactic was quickly abandoned as ineffective, and instead, the Reds tried their usual method of utilising the pace of the Kepo brothers, while the incoming Vito Laloata, who replaced the injured Patrick Aisa, worked as the target man, bringing the ball down and holding up play for other around him. This was, theoretically, a sound tactic, but Laloata’s first touch is not quite at the standard required to play that sort of role effectively.
In the 13th minute, Hekari lost talismanic playmaker David Muta to injury, casting doubt on the side’s ability to pull off the result they needed. He was replaced by Willie Gia.
The first half, while pulsating, didn’t provide any goals, so the two sides went into the half-time break goalless. However, Hekari once again came onto the attack in the second half, and following a poor goal kick from Seiloni Iaruel in the 53rd minute, Vito Laloata’s headed through-ball found Ati Kepo, who squeezed past two Galaxy defenders and rifled the ball past the goalkeeper for Hekari’s first, sending the home crowd into raptures.
Hekari were emboldened, and saw their chance. Ten minutes later, excellent work from Michael Foster and Kolu Kepo on the left wing saw the older brother find his younger brother rushing towards the penalty box. Ati Kepo controlled the lofted pass with finesse, before burying the ball past Iaruel and sprinting over to the home fans with delight. Hekari found themselves just one goal away from an unlikely qualification.
Slowly but surely, however, Hekari’s failure to pick up a third goal saw the tide of play turn slightly. Galaxy had looked dangerous going forward, but were often caught offside by Hekari’s high defensive line. The ball actually ended up in the back of the net on one occasion, before being ruled out for offside, but the warning signs were there.
Then, with time running out on Hekari’s quest to find their decisive third goal, Hekari’s inability to win the second ball led to substitute Kensi Tangis being released on the right wing. He drilled a cross into the box for unmarked Bong Kalo to slot past Ishmael Pole in the Hekari goal. Kalo, himself returning from a suspension which saw him ruled out of the opening two matches, will be delighted to have finally got his OFC campaign underway.
Kalo’s goal took the sting out of the game. Hekari, now in need of another two goals to qualify, pushed hard, but as time ticked away, the game fizzled out, and while the match was settled in Hekari’s favour, qualification went the way of Galaxy. Galaxy’s second-place finish means their quarter-final will be away from home against one of the group winners, while Hekari will shift their focus to their domestic National Soccer League campaign, which continues next weekend.
You can watch the goals from Hekari United 2-1 Galaxy in the video below: