Five goals from five different players saw Lae City return to the top of the Papua New Guinea National Soccer League after their thrashing of Gulf Komara on Saturday, while league leaders Vitiaz United were denied victory by a late goal by Star Mountain.
With the games taking place without spectators and in a reduced number of stadiums – the PNG Football Stadium in Port Moresby and the Sir Ignatius Kilage Stadium in Lae – the football was more concentrated and less spread around the country, but supporters were nevertheless excited to see top-level action return to the country after almost five months without football.
League leaders Vitiaz United took on a new-look Star Mountain side in the early kick-off in Port Moresby. Vitiaz took the lead on 22 minutes after Yagi Yasasa scored his second goal of the season, but they were pegged back around 15 minutes later as Pettyshen Elijah slotted home for the Tabubil side.
Winger Jonathan Allen, a new signing from FC Bougainville, scored for Vitiaz with a quarter of an hour to play. That goal takes Allen to eight for the season – two in two games for Vitiaz so far – one behind current leading scorer Stahl Gubag. The goal looked to be enough to retain the club’s two-point lead at the top of the table, but Star Mountain had other ideas.
With 90 minutes already gone, the hard-working Star Mountain side denied Vitiaz a victory thanks to a second goal from Pettyshen Elijah two minutes into injury time. Elijah now has four goals for the season and is the club’s top scorer, with the 25-year-old centre-forward having passed veteran Tau Winnie‘s season tally of three.
With Vitiaz failing to win, Lae City knew that if they could secure victory against Gulf Komara, they would leap ahead of the newcomers and to the top of the table. Despite being without the quality of Raymond Gunemba and Nigel Dabinyaba, who have both moved to Hekari United, the side once again had few problems finding the net, coming away with an impressive 5-0 victory against the side from the Erema Gulf region.
Goals came from familiar faces: Felix Komolong scored his first goal since his return to the club, while there was also one each for Jacob Sabua, Obert Bika, Joshua Oscar, and Emmanuel Airem. Incidentally, Oscar made a touching tribute to teammate Nigel Malagian which he was able to highlight after netting his goal; he was wearing an armband with Malagian’s nickname on it. Malagian is currently in hospital recovering after having had a stroke during a training session.
With Lae having won, the pressure was on Hekari United in the late fixture in Port Moresby to keep pace with the two teams ahead of them. They faced a tough FC Bougainville outfit under the shrewd management of Percy Mataio. Due to the confusion of the eligibility of new signings Gunemba and Dabinyaba, the pair was not risked for the fixture, and Hekari struggled to break down the defences of a well-organised Bougainville side – indeed, the two sides went in at half-time goalless.
With time ticking on, Hekari’s superior fitness prevailed: pacy striker Kolu Kepo scored his fifth and sixth goals of the season, and Bougainville were unable to find an answer in time. With Ishmael Pole sidelined with malaria, stand-in goalkeeper Dave Tomare will be happy to have been able to keep a clean sheet for the Red Army.
Lae therefore hit the top of the table on goal difference, having scored 35 goals and conceded 10 so far this season. Hekari also move ahead of Vitiaz with their +16 goal difference, while Vitiaz drop to third with +8, having been slightly less efficient up front and at the back compared to their rivals. All three teams are dead level on points, though, which means the remaining seven matches will certainly lead to an exciting season run-in.
In Lae, fourth-placed Tusbab Stallions extended their cushion in fourth place, but only by a single point, as they were matched by FC Kutubu in a 2-2 draw. Despite Stallions taking the lead twice in the game, the absence of the departed Nigel Malagian and Stahl Gubag – as well as key midfield maestro Ricky Wadunah due to his studies – had a big impact on Stallions as a creative and attacking force, and both their goals came from counter-attacks against a Kutubu side who look to have reinforced in precisely the right areas in the two transfer windows.
Stallions opened the scoring with a swift counter, with Nehemiah Gebul slotting home, but Kutubu, bolstered by new signings Dinniget Luaine and Oberth Simon, began to grow into the game, and dominated for the majority, with Simon equalising with twenty minutes gone. Stallions’ Solomon Mapai capitalised once again on his side’s youth and pace to put Stallions back in front before half-time, but Kutubu forced another equaliser through Isome Kila to tie the game. Kutubu had two clear cut chances to win the game late on, but Stallions goalkeeper Graham Berigami was able to preserve the draw for the Madang-based side.
With both Komara and Bougainville losing, Stallions’ draw sees them stretch their playoff advantage to five points, despite slipping back from the title chasers above them.
In the final game in Lae, Morobe rivals United and Wawens went head-to-head, and it was Wawens who came out on top, securing a 3-1 victory with goals from ex-Stallions squad player George Korei, centre-forward Joshua Paget, and defensive midfielder Ferdallas Namuesh. A consolation goal from Tosh Ibax was all that a depleted Morobe United could muster, and they look a shadow of the side that reached the playoff semi-finals last season.
FC Kutubu 2-2 Tusbab Stallions
Vitiaz United 2-2 Star Mountain
Morobe United 1-3 Morobe Wawens
Lae City 5-0 Gulf Komara
Hekari United 2-0 FC Bougainville