The much-anticipated final gameweek of the Papua New Guinea National Soccer League is mere hours away, and the top six teams all still have plenty to play for before next week’s playoffs. With two sides still mathematically able to claim the title, two sides battling for the final OFC Champions League spot, and three sides fighting it out for the final playoff spot, it should be a fascinating and entertaining weekend.
The action begins in Port Moresby, with the first match of a triple-header in the capital city. FC Bougainville, who are currently in sixth place, host Morobe Wawens, in 8th. The hosts know that only a win will give them a hope of securing an unlikely qualification to the playoffs. However, this is far from impossible: Wawens have a dire record away from Lae, while Bougainville, led by sterling performances from the likes of Daniel Vetali, Bernard Purari, and Basil Jofari, have been in excellent form of late.
The side are unbeaten in four matches – ever since their 9-2 defeat to Lae City on August 22 – and this has included vital victories over playoff rivals Tusbab Stallions (5-0) and Vitiaz United (1-0). A home game on the final day against Wawens should be a walk in the park; they just have to ensure that they don’t let nerves get the better of them; Wawens have nothing to play for, after all.
The fate of the playoffs will be wrapped up by roughly 2.45pm local time, with the two remaining sides in playoff contention, Tusbab Stallions and Gulf Komara, kicking off at 1pm in Lae and Port Moresby respectively. Stallions somehow lead the way in 4th place despite having won only once since the restart. This win, however, was a crucial one – a 2-1 away win against Komara, who on the contrary, have been showing decent form since lockdown.
One obstacle stands in Tusbab’s way, though – a clash with Hekari United. The eight-time champions are mathematically still in with a shout of the Minor Premiership if they can win, Lae lose, and they can somehow overturn a 12-goal deficit in goal difference. While this is unlikely, stranger things have happened in football – and in Papua New Guinea especially. With that being the case, Hekari will likely field a full-strength side and go searching for goals from the kick-off – and Tusbab’s defence has looked shaky of late, so one wonders whether they will be able to withstand the barricade.
That leave Gulf Komara’s clash with Star Mountain in the capital, which in itself is also an intriguing match-up. Star Mountain have enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance since the restart, having only fallen short of being in contention for the playoffs because of their walk-off against Morobe Wawens a few weeks ago. Had they gone on to win that match, they would be within a point of the playoffs.
So this is far from an easy game for Komara – although Ilagi Geno is in good form with five goals in eight games, Star Mountain have also looked sharp up front, with free transfer Riggie Togubai scoring vital goals and club top scorer Pettyshen Elizah always dangerous. And don’t forget – Star Mountain were the first side to inflict defeat on Hekari United this season.
So when push comes to shove, sixth-placed Bougainville have the most straightforward fixture on paper, and could well capitalise on slip-ups by both teams ahead of them. One thing is for certain, however: it’s going to be a fascinating opening three fixtures.
The final two fixtures, kicking off at 3pm, feature one dead rubber and one potential playoff preview: Kutubu vs Morobe United is a battle between the bottom two, and whatever happens, Kutubu’s diabolical goal difference means they won’t be finishing the season anywhere but 10th.
The huge match in Port Moresby, however, is between Lae City and Vitiaz United, who both have something to play for: Lae City need to be professional in order to officially claim the title; a draw will mathematically seal it, but even a narrow defeat should be enough for the reigning champions. Vitiaz also still have a slight chance of finishing in the top two if they secure a huge win against Lae and Hekari do the opposite against Tusbab. However, the chances of either of these things happening is extremely slim.
Perhaps what is more interesting will be how the two teams will fare against each other. Let’s not forget that Vitiaz won this fixture in Lae all the way back in January, 2-1, with two goals from Joel Tiampo. So a win for Vitiaz would be extremely interesting in terms of what might happen in the playoffs. We have seen all three major contenders – Lae, Hekari and Vitiaz – lose this season, so all three are vulnerable. The playoffs this season are a fascinating prospect.
There’s also the small matter of the Golden Boot Award to be earned. Vitiaz’ Jonathan Allen is leading the way with 12 goals, with Stahl Gubag of Lae City on 11, and Mathew David, also of Vitiaz United, on 10. Both Raymond Gunemba and Nigel Dabinyaba, who transferred from Lae City to Hekari United, sit on eight goals, but look to be too far away to make a challenge for the award.