The semi-finals of the Papua New Guinea National Soccer League were matches of exceptionally high quality and drama, proving that once these four sides step up their game when it really matters, they are capable of producing hugely entertaining and high-quality football. It was a dramatic weekend with red cards, late goals, plucky underdogs, and former champions being complacent, and our review of how it all went down is below.
These two semi-finals swept us up and carried us willingly towards the epitome of this crazy, lockdown-punctuated season, and with fans finally allowed back into stadia as of last week, a bit of atmosphere surrounded each game as well, with attacks and counter-attacks being met with gasps and cheers from the excitable crowd.
The early kick-off, at 1pm in Port Moresby, was reigning five-time champions Lae City against 4th-placed finishers Gulf Komara. Lae had suffered just a single defeat in the regular season, and their two pervious meetings with Gulf Komara had seen them score a total of six unanswered goals. With on-form defender, a strong midfield, and a bench brimming with talent, on paper, this should have been a walk in the park for the champions.
Indeed, they found themselves a goal up after just 76 seconds after a defensive error from Komara gifting the side an early penalty. Ecuadorian Abdias Aguirre slotted home the penalty with aplomb, and the crowd went wild. The side looked on track early on: the finals beckoned; coach Bob Morris was smiling; Jacob Sabua and Emmanuel Simon, the two most influential men on the pitch, relaxed.
The Gulf-based franchise, featuring a host of raw talent not used to finals competition, swiftly kicked into gear, and began to pepper to Lae City goalmouth. Swift, slick passing saw three chances go begging, as first Ilagi Geno headed wide before talismanic striker Jordan Kaven missed a couple of his own chances. For the majority of the first half, Lae City found themselves in a position somewhat unfamiliar to them: defending their own goal.
Wave after wave of concerted Gulf Komara attack came and went, with Lae’s once-impregnable defence being sliced open, and Komara only failed to score due to their lack of composure in the final, crucial moment. Despite this domination, Komara were unable to find the back of the net before half-time, and Lae went into the dressing room a goal up, breathing quite a large sigh of relief.
Having regrouped during the break, Lae City once again put themselves on the front foot early on, pressing Komara strongly in the first five minutes of the second half. Komara resisted for a time, until Emmanuel Simon created space on the right and blasted the ball past Ila Rova in the Komara goal. The champions had a two-goal lead; the elation was clear, and the relief palpable.
But the game was far from over: Komara began to advance once more. And here, Lae’s tactical nous really began to come into play. With Komara raiding the Lae City half, the champions were wary on the counter-attack, ensuring they were not committing too many men forward in order to preserve their two-goal lead.
As the game moved into the final ten minutes, Numa Kila brought some fresh legs into the Gulf Komara attack, and finally the underdogs made a breakthrough. On 84 minutes, after hard work from Kila, Rupa Emil, raiding forward from left-back, shuffled past defensive rock Alwin Komolong and snuck the ball past the despairing arms of Ronald Warisan to halve the deficit. Rupa fell to his knees in tears, while the Lae City defence looked at each other with a mixture of perplexity and ire. Had they blown it?
No. Despite Komara’s best efforts in the final five minutes, Lae City held firm, and secured their place in the final with a 2-1 victory. But this was no walk in the park: Gulf Komara, who had been underestimated by everyone including Lae City themselves, had proven to all that they were, and will be, a force to be reckoned with.
With that thrilling encounter out of the way, Hekari United and Vitiaz United stepped up to the plate, and delivered a match that rivalled the earlier kick-off in every way. Eight-time champions Hekari, who began the match with Dave Tomare ahead of Ishmael Pole in goal and with Raymond Gunemba on the bench, began the contest brightly, looking composed and calm in possession and dangerous going forward.
Just like fellow former champions Lae, Hekari were in front early on, with a gorgeous whipped cross from Junior David finding the head of Ati Kepo, who headed the ball down past Russell Chris in the Vitiaz goal. Ten minutes gone, and many of us may have been forgiven for expecting yet another Lae-Hekari Grand Final. But Vitiaz had other ideas.
Hekari dominated both possession and goalscoring chances throughout most of the first half. Ati Kepo’s pace was causing huge problems for the Vitiaz defence, while David Muta and Michael Foster were carefully controlling the midfield. But Hekari became wasteful in front of goal – on 15 minutes, Kolu Kepo had a massive chance from directly in front of goal with the ball cut back from the byline, but he skied his effort far, far over the bar. He would come to regret it.
Two minutes later, Vitiaz were level. With their first sight of goal, young starlet midfielder Yagi Yasasa brought the ball forward, cut inside, and drilled an effort towards Tomare’s far post. The ball hit the inside of the post and nestled in the back of the net, and Yasasa wheeled away in elation. Somehow, completely against the run of play, Vitiaz were level.
On 25 minutes, Hekari boss Erickson Komeng decided to replace the ineffective Nathan James with Raymond Gunemba. Whatever his reasons were for starting James ahead of Gunemba, it didn’t make a huge amount of difference. Gunemba was unable to find much space in or near the Vitiaz box throughout most of the first half, and indeed, it was Vitiaz who took the lead in the 36th minute. Yagi Yasasa curled a direct free-kick high into the Hekari net to score his second stunner of the day and put the newbies in front against the eight-time champions. Hekari were shellshocked.
The second half saw Vitiaz grow even more into the game – while they had been clinical in the first half by taking both of their big chances, they had rarely had much control of the game. For a long while, it looked as if Vitiaz were more likely to score a third than Hekari were to equalise. However, as the game ticked into the final ten minutes, the real drama began.
Firstly, on 83 minutes, a lofted free-kick into the box from Raymond Gunemba caused chaos in the Vitiaz box, with the ball bouncing to Kolu Kepo just inches from the goal. Kepo was brought down, and a penalty was given. Cool, calm, and collected, Daniel Joe rolled the ball into the bottom corner to draw the two sides level.
Invigorated, Hekari pushed forward, seeking the decisive winner. For a few minutes, it looked inevitable that they would get it, and then disaster: Ati Kepo was sent off for a second bookable offence, taking all the sting out of Hekari’s tail. Their momentum was lost, and all of a sudden, with the match going into extra time, Vitiaz were once again the favourites.
Ninety minutes elapsed, and the game went into an additional half-hour of extra time. However, just before half-time in extra time, Vitiaz’s Rodney Talau joined Kepo in the stands after he also received a second yellow card. The teams were back on level terms in every sense once again. From this moment on, no-one could have correctly predicted the winner; the two sides were matching each other in every aspect of the game.
As the match headed almost inevitably towards a penalty shoot-out, more late drama: Mathew David controlled a lofted ball from the defence and surged towards the penalty box. Penalty hero Daniel Joe appeared the bring down the striker, and after a long delay to treat an apparent injury to David, the penalty ended up NOT being given. A huge decision from the referee, and one which many fans were aggrieved about at the time.
However, perhaps karma had the final say in this match. The game went to penalties, and in one of the biggest rollercoaster rides I’ve ever experienced, the shootout twisted one way and then another, before finally settling on a 4-3 Vitiaz victory after six penalties each, with Koriak Upaiga crucially missing for Hekari before Junior Sigit scored the decisive spot-kick.
So it will be Lae City vs Vitiaz United in the final: Vitiaz have a winning record against the champions, having won one and drawn one, so they will certainly fancy their chances, but Lae City have been there and done that five times, and will be desperate to make it six after all the turmoil in their ranks this season. Meanwhile, Hekari will take on Gulf Komara in the third-place playoff. Bring it on!