Weekend Preview: Hekari and Lae to Clash with Full-Strength Squads

One of the key matches to decide the location of the Papua New Guinea National Soccer League Minor Premiership will take place this weekend in Port Moresby, with eight-time champions Hekari United playing host to five-time reigning champions Lae City.

With the news that Raymond Gunemba and Nigel Dabinyaba are free to play for Hekari United following a fortnight of uncertainty, it should be a mouth-watering clash between two sides at full strength which could go a long way to deciding which two teams will qualify for the 2021 OFC Champions League.

Raymond Gunemba (left) and Nigel Dabinyaba are back in Hekari colours and cleared for Saturday’s game against Lae City.

With the 2020 OFC Champions League yet to be completed, it remains to be seen how qualification for the 2021 edition shakes out, but if it corresponds to previous years, then the top two finishers in the regular season table will qualify for the Champions League, as OFC prioritises league table results ahead of end-of-season playoffs.

Despite such an upheaval during the transfer period and Peter Gunemba’s removal as manager, Lae City came out swinging with a 5-0 victory over Gulf Komara last weekend as the season resumed. With five different goalscorers finding the net, and a clean sheet for the new-look defence containing brothers Alwin and Felix Komolong, it was a dream restart for Bob Morris’ side, but Hekari United are a different beast entirely.

The Red Army has the best defence in the competition, having conceded just six goals in eleven matches so far, and having enjoyed six clean sheets. A back line that includes experience in Koriak Upaiga, Daniel Joe alongside youngblood Carlos Onne and Junior David is expected to be solid, but the loss of Brazilian Erick Joe could be crucial when up against the attacking prowess of Lae City. Can they keep the fluid Lae attack at bay?

Lae’s Jacob Sabua scored an astonishing long-range effort last weekend in Lae’s 5-0 win over Gulf Komara.

Up front, Hekari have ‘struggled’ – by their standards, at least. They have scored 13 fewer goals than Lae so far, and their real issue has been having someone to put the ball in the back of the net. The arrival of Gunemba and Dabinyaba should be the final piece of the puzzle: the pair have 11 goals between them so far this season, while aside from Kolu Kepo (with 6), no-one else at Hekari has more than 3 goals. With the pace of Kepo feeding the flair and skill of Gunemba and Dabinyaba, the Red Army may have just found a potent and lethal combination in front of goal.

It will certainly be an interesting clash, but of course there’s other football to be played this weekend as well. While Hekari and Lae try to damage each other’s title hopes, Vitiaz United will be hoping to regain the lead in the title chase with their match against Morobe Wawens. Vitiaz have home games until the end of the season, so are in an excellent position to retain peak fitness without any long journeys, but Wawens looked good against Morobe United last weekend and can put up a fight on their day. The third game in Port Moresby is Star Mountain’s clash with FC Bougainville – a very intriguing game which will see Bougainville coach Percy Mataio return to his former club.

In Lae, Tusbab Stallions will be hoping to continue their playoff push against Morobe United, who look bang out of form and lacking in real talent. Stallions will retain the services of central midfielder Ricky Wadunah and attacker Papalau Awele, after both were absent last week, and they will be confident of securing victory against an ailing Morobe United side. Meanwhile, FC Kutubu will be looking to build on last week’s draw with Stallions against Gulf Komara, who will be looking to bounce back from their thrashing in Port Moresby last weekend.

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