NSL Playoff Preview: Crunch Time for Top PNG Clubs as Season Heads to Playoffs

This weekend will see the 2019–20 Papua New Guinea National Soccer League head into its annual playoffs, where, following two semi-finals and a Grand Final, the winner of the NSL season will be crowned. But who will take the glory? Five-time reigning champions Lae City? Eight-time champions Hekari United? Solid newcomers Vitiaz United? Or plucky underdogs Gulf Komara?

Lae City vs Gulf Komara

With the playoff draw based on league position, regular season Minor Premiers Lae City have been drawn against 4th-placed side Gulf Komara in the 1pm kick-off in Port Moresby on Saturday.

Lae City have to be the favourites for this clash. The side defeated Gulf Komara in both of their regular season matches: a Raymond Gunemba penalty was enough for the five-time champions to overcome Komara in the second matchday way back in December 2019, while Komara were thumped 5-0 in the first week back after the COVID-enforced break in the season’s proceedings.

Furthermore, Lae has seemingly overcome the turmoil that surrounded former manager Peter Gunemba’s departure from the club, but their form hasn’t really shifted in either direction. Lae’s record in the first half of the season (under Gunemba) was W7 D1 L1, with 29 goals scored and 9 conceded. In the second half of the season (under Morris), they W6 D3 L0, with 24 goals scored a 6 conceded. This indicates that the club have tightened up defensively – probably in part due to the arrival of the Komolong brothers, Felix and Alwin – but haven’t been able to score as many goals.

The new-look Lae City, boosted by the arrival of Felix and Alwin Komolong in defence, are the favourites to win the first semi-final. Photo PNGFA

This could be down to the lack of a recognised out-and-out striker after Raymond Gunemba left the club and joined rivals Hekari. That said, Jacob Sabua, who was recently voted the MVP of this season’s National Soccer League by readers, has stepped up with five goals in eight games since the restart, and Stahl Gubag has eleven goals for the season, although nine of them were scored at his former club, Tusbab Stallions.

With a host of players boasting international experience, Lae City look every bit the powerhouse that they have been over the past five years. So can a small club like Gulf Komara really expect to stop them?

One thing that could play in Gulf Komara’s favour is the admirable quality that there is no one star player in the team. Each player works hard for the team, and very rarely takes many plaudits as an individual. This is best highlighted by the club’s top scorers for the season so far: the highest scoring player has five goals (compared to Lae and Hekari’s 11 and Vitiaz’s 12), and this honour is shared by three men: Numa Kila, Ilagi Geno and Jordan Kaven, the latter of whom scored a hat-trick in last week’s 5-0 win which took them into the playoffs. Furthermore, Kenneth Arah has 4 goals, while Pala Paul has 3.

Jordan Kaven scored a hat-trick for Gulf Komara in last week’s crucial win over Star Mountain. Photo: PNGFA

This teamwork has carried them this far, and if they gel as a unit once again in this crunch match against Lae, they could spring a surprise; indeed, two weeks ago, an Ilagi Geno goal was enough to beat Vitiaz United in a shock victory against the title chasers. However, most readers would agree that it would take an incredible performance from Gulf Komara and an off-day from Lae City for this fixture to go against the odds.

Prediction: Lae City 3-1 Gulf Komara

Hekari United vs Vitiaz United

This is the real tasty clash, and it’s on at primetime: 4pm local time in Port Moresby. The second- and third-placed sides from the regular season will battle it out for a place in the Grand Final, and the identity of the winner seems impossible to predict.

Let’s firstly congratulate Vitiaz United on a fantastic debut season. No-one would have predicted at the start of the campaign that Vitiaz would be in contention for the playoffs, let alone fighting for the Minor Premiership until the very last week. It is a shame that the side were unable to hold on to second place in the league, as it would have been hugely interesting to see them take part in the OFC Champions League next year. But the season is far from over.

Vitiaz are currently hugely reliant on two players who were new signings mid-season: Jonathan Allen was signed from FC Bougainville and is the league’s top scorer, having scored six for his old club and six for his new one. Meanwhile, Mathew David has been a revelation since signing from Lae City, having scored ten goals in a six-match period since the restart – although perhaps worryingly, he doesn’t have any in his last three games.

Mathew David (second from left) has been a revelation since arriving from Lae City. Photo: PNGFA

And herein lies the potential problem: if either Allen or David – or both – have an off day, there are few other players who can hit the back of the net. Their early-season goals came from Russell Nirik, who has since left the club, Eliud Fugre, who is more of a playmaker than a goalscorer, and Joel Tiampo. All three of these men, plus young midfield starlet Yagi Yasasa, only have three goals this season, yet share third-place in the club’s goalscoring standings. Vitiaz failed to score in each of their final three games of the season, something which must be playing heavily on their minds as they go up against the defence of Hekari United.

However, Hekari have problems of their own: we mentioned in our preview of this year’s competition that Hekari have an aging squad, and the recruitment of Nigel Dabinyaba and Raymond Gunemba has done nothing to improve that. Key defenders Koriak Upaiga and Daniel Joe, midfielders Michael Foster and David Muta, and strikers Dabinyaba and Gunemba are all over 30, and while there is some younger talent available in the likes of Junior David, the Kepo brothers, and goalkeeper of the season Ishmael Pole in goal, the core of the team has lost that yard of pace. Surely this is the last hurrah for this iconic and legendary group of players, before younger men must inevitably come through to replace them?

Ishmael Pole picked up the OFCe Goalkeeper of the Season Award last week. Photo: PNGFA

Hekari must also be slightly worried about their recent form: after losing Brazilian imports Erick Joe and Vinicius Reis during the COVID lockdown, the side lost two matches in the second half of the season, and were unable to match the goalscoring exploits of Lae City despite poaching their two best strikers: Lae City scored 24 goals in the second half of the season, while Hekari could only manage 20.

The two previous meetings between these two sides this season ended in draws. With Vitiaz stuttering over the line in their final few fixtures, this one could be decided by which side has more experience of the big occasions. In that sense, therefore, Hekari’s veterans could prove to be an advantage rather than a drawback, but much will depend on whether Allen and David can find their shooting boots.

Prediction: Hekari United 1-1 Vitiaz United (Hekari to win on penalties)

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