Third-placed Hekari United are facing a must-win clash against fourth-placed Gulf Komara this weekend as they cling to the hope that they may still finish in the top two of this year’s Papua New Guinea National Soccer League.
The most decorated side in Papua New Guinea football history sits three points behind newcomers Vitiaz United and five points behind huge rivals Lae City with just four matches left in the season before the playoffs. A defeat this week could see them almost out of reach of the title, but a win, conversely, could see them leapfrog Vitiaz and draw within two points of Lae, depending on how results go elsewhere.
The Red Army have endured a sluggish second half of the season, losing twice – to Star Mountain and Lae City – drawing once – against Vitiaz – and winning two of their five games. Their remaining fixtures, starting with Gulf Komara this weekend, all come against teams below them in the table, so four wins from four is expected, and indeed necessary, but may still not be enough to break into the top two.
Historically, PNG has sent the top two sides in the regular season to represent the nation at the OFC Champions League, so finishing third could see the club crucially miss out on the continental competition for the third time in four seasons – they missed the 2018 and 2019 editions due to the breakaway from the PNGFA.
A win against Gulf Komara will not be an easy task, however. The side is in decent recent form, having won their last two games by two goals to one, and striker Ilagi Geno has scored three of those four goals, so will pose a threat to the Hekari defence. They are also fighting to retain their position in the end-of-season playoffs, having moved into fourth at the expense of Tusbab Stallions last week, so they will be desperate to retain that position going into the final three games of the season.
Hekari-Komara kicks off at 11am local time, and is followed by Tusbab Stallions against FC Bougainville. Although Stallions are technically the home side in the fixture, due to COVID-related restrictions, they are unable to play in their hometown of Madang, so must travel to Port Moresby instead. This disadvantages them slightly, given that their opponents, Bougainville, are POM-based, and will probably benefit from home advantage more than the Stallions will. Both Wadunah brothers will return to the Stallions midfield, and they will be hoping that Bougainville, who won their first match since February last week, will still be suffering from a post-Percy Mataio hangover.
The final game in the capital is Vitiaz United against FC Kutubu, which on paper should be a walk in the park for the second-placed side. Kutubu do have players poached from Morobe United that may be able to cause problems for Vitiaz – the likes of Dinniget Luaine, Emmanuel Simongi and Oberth Simon – but Vitiaz look calm and collected in midfield and absolutely lethal up front, and should have too much about them for the bottom side to handle.
In Lae, Morobe United host Star Mountain in the 11am kick-off, with both sides looking to collect vital points that could give them an outside chance at a playoff spot if other sides ahead of them slip up. United, as the home side, should have the advantage, but Star Mountain are capable of pulling a big result out of the bag, as demonstrated when they defeated Hekari 2-1 just before the COVID-enforced break, and a win could put them in a very handy position going into the final stretch.
At 1pm, Lae City take on Morobe Wawens in a game they will expect to win. Wawens have been rather inconsistent this season, but have looked good at home, with all five of their wins this season coming in Lae. However, Lae defeated Wawens 5-1 back in January, and are arguably in even better form than they were back then. Can Wawens pull off an upset and shuffle the standings at the top of the league once again? Only time will tell.