This weekend sees the culmination of the 2019–20 Papua New Guinea National Soccer League, a season that, thanks to the COVID-19 induced lockdown, has taken almost ten months to complete. It comes down to the Grand Final between five-time champions Lae City and newcomers Vitiaz United. Before that, the third-place playoff will take place between Hekari United and Gulf Komara.
Last week’s dramatic semi-finals saw Lae City squeeze past an impressive Gulf Komara, who refused to sit back and invite Lae City onto them but rather played some swift, fast-flowing attacking football and almost embarrassed the reigning champions, while Vitiaz United and Hekari United played out a tense 2-2 draw, with both sides going down to ten men, before a back-and-forth penalty shoot-out eventually saw Vitiaz triumph over the experienced Red Army.
A quick note on the third-placed playoff before we begin: it will be interesting to see how Hekari line up, with several squad players having not seen so much game time this season. The likes of Frank Taboroyan, Freddy Kepo, Joseph Joe, and Vito Laloata will be itching to get some competitive match experience and to prove themselves ahead of next season, which may be happening sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, Gulf Komara will be full of confidence following their close call against Lae City last week, and may fancy their chances against a potentially rotated Hekari.
To the main event: predicting the winner of Lae City versus Vitiaz United is impossible to call. Vitiaz must be highly credited for an incredible debut season in the National Soccer League, but prior to the semi-final against Hekari, it looked like they might be running out of steam, having failed to score in their final three regular season matches. Their bounce-back against Hekari, which consisted of two long-range efforts from the excellent Yagi Yasasa, hasn’t quelled fears that Jonathan Allen – who was absent from the semi-final – and Mathew David have fallen out of form. Those two need to be on fire against a fine Lae City defence, who have looked extremely solid since the arrival of the Komolong brothers.
Lae City have come out of the other side of their mid-season managerial turmoil and seem to be stronger as a result. They retained the services of the two Ecuadorians, Abdias Aguirre and Gustine Icaza, both of whom featured against Gulf Komara last weekend, and recruited admirably in the transfer windows. However, they too have problems in front of goal: Stahl Gubag has only scored two goals since his arrival from Tusbab Stallions – compared to nine in the same number of games for his previous club – and last week’s goals came from a penalty and a long-range effort from Emmanuel Simon. Lae haven’t been able to fully replace Raymond Gunemba, and while other members of the squad chipped in with important goals in the season run-in, that lack of cutting edge up front is a definite weakness.
Midfield battles will be key to this affair: Eliud Fugre has been hugely influential in the Vitiaz midfield all season, but will have his work cut out against Simon, Aguirre and Joshua Oscar, all of whom offer composure on the ball and attacking prowess going forward. Fugre will need plenty of help from teammates Junior Sigit, Max Efale, and Elliot Foni if he’s to dictate the midfield battle in the Grand Final.
It has been an excellent season of football in Papua New Guinea, and credit to the tournament organisers who have been able to get things going again in difficult circumstances since the lockdown. The standard of football has certainly been high in the playoffs so far, and we hope to see an excellent, fair, and entertaining clash on Saturday afternoon. May the best team win!