A defensive mix-up was the difference between Hekari United and Lae City on Saturday in Port Moresby, as a Jacob Sabua goal was enough for the five-time reigning champions to pull away from their biggest rivals at the top of the Papua New Guinea National Soccer League.
In the meantime, Vitiaz United kept the pressure on league leaders Lae with a 3-0 victory over Morobe Wawens, with ex-Lae City striker Mathew David scoring a hat-trick.
But it was the Hekari-Lae match which had fans watering at the mouth, as the two teams who between them have shared every single National Soccer League title since the competition’s inception went head-to-head for the second time this season. The sides met in Lae back in March with the points shared after a 1-1 draw; this time, the reigning champions were able to get over the line.
Despite Raymond Gunemba and Nigel Dabinyaba being cleared to play ahead of the clash and starting the game, Hekari coach Erickson Komeng selected an unusual backline, with Samoan Vito Laloata – who usually plays as a striker – featuring in defence alongside the only other foreigner left in the Hekari squad, right-back Junior David. But after just five minutes, Kamake’s gameplan was undone, as David and Laloata failed to clear a ball from the penalty area, and Jacob Sabua was there to smash home from just inside the penalty box.
For the majority of the rest of the second half, the teams cancelled each other out, with Gunemba and Dabinyaba failing to truly link up with pacy forward Kolu Kepo for Hekari, and Lae dominating the midfield but not creating many clear cut chances on goal. Lae’s Emmanuel Simon looked particularly good as always in the Lae midfield, while Lae’s flowing forward line at times was spearheaded by Ecuadorian Abdias Aguirre, new recruit Stahl Gubag, and goalscorer Sabua – although the lack of a real out-and-out goal threat meant that they probably should have scored more than just the one goal.
Where Lae lack in attack, though, they make up in defence, with brothers Alwin and Felix Komolong looking remarkably assured on the ball and limiting Hekari to half-chances and long shots for the majority of the second half, allowing the league leaders to hold on to a clean sheet and, most importantly, a single-goal victory.
So, a disappointing weekend for Hekari United, compounded further by how comfortable Vitiaz United found their victory over Morobe Wawens earlier in the afternoon in the capital. Mathew David, who moved to Vitiaz United during the mid-season transfer window, scored a marvellous hat-trick to bring his goal tally for his new club to five in three games, and with Wawens unable to find an answer, Vitiaz join Lae at the top of the division, three points ahead of Hekari in third.
In the first match of the day in Port Moresby, Star Mountain continued their remarkable resurgence in the second half of the season with a 3-1 victory over FC Bougainville. Star Mountain now have seven points from their last three games – two more than they achieved in the entire first half of the season. The Tabubil-based side enjoyed two goals from free transfer Riggie Togubai, who most recently was playing for University in the Port Moresby Premier Division, and one from veteran striker Tau Winnie, who took his season tally to four. Bougainville’s Robert Kenake scored a late consolation for the visitors.
Star Mountain’s victory takes them to sixth in the table, just six points off the playoffs; and on current form, that doesn’t look very far away.
That’s because both sides ahead of them seem to have lost their mojo since the resumption of play following the coronavirus outbreak. Tusbab Stallions, in fourth, hosted Morobe United this week expecting a win – especially given the return of key youngster Ricky Wadunah in the midfield and Papalau Awele up front. However, Morobe United, who had looked bereft of form recently, having not won a game since January, came up with a shock win, with goals coming from Alex Kamen and Bruce Tiampo, despite Oswald Bade’s equaliser from the bench for the Stallions.
Meanwhile, Gulf Komara, in fifth, also lost in Lae this week, having travelled there to face FC Kutubu. In a goal fest, Komara’s Kenneth Arah scored a hat-trick from the bench but still ended up on the losing side, with Oberth Simon‘s brace and goals from Aisome Kila and Karesa Morris giving Kutubu a 4-3 victory – a result which still fails to lift them off the foot of the table.
The race for the final playoff spot, then, is very much still on, with Stallions five ahead of nearest rivals Gulf Komara, but with just three points separating Komara in fifth and Kutubu in tenth. With both Tusbab and Komara struggling for form, the resurgence from the sides beneath them could and should be worrying them.
Next weekend, the top three are all at home as Lae take on Bougainville in Lae, while Vitiaz host Tusbab Stallions in Port Moresby and Kutubu travel to face Hekari in the capital. Gulf Komara host Morobe United in POM, while Morobe Wawens take on Star Mountain in Lae.
Star Mountain 3-1 FC Bougainville
FC Kutubu 4-3 Gulf Komara
Vitiaz United 3-0 Morobe Wawens
Tusbab Stallions 1-2 Morobe United
Hekari United 0-1 Lae City