The excitement that led up to the 2019–20 Papua New Guinea National Soccer League Grand Final this Saturday, 10 October, did not lead to disappointment, as Lae City and Vitiaz United played out a thrilling, albeit low-scoring, Grand Final, with the experience of Lae City eventually overcoming the pluckiness of Vitiaz United in a high-quality game of football.
Before the Grand Final kicked off, at 7pm local time in Port Moresby, Hekari United secured third place for the season with a 5-0 thrashing of Gulf Komara. Two goals each from Michael Foster and Raymond Gunemba, with one for Nigel Dabinyaba, ensured the Red Army secured the bronze medal.
Then came the turn of the Grand Finalists: a Bob Morris-led Lae City who had endured a managerial departure and a squad exodus mid-season, yet come back stronger than ever in the second half of the campaign; and debutant side Vitiaz United, who had surprised everyone from the first whistle with their consistency, quality, and determination.
Both sides named a strong squad, with Jonathan Allen returning to partner Mathew David up front for the debutants, while Lae City named Abdias Aguirre and Emmanuel Airem as their strikers, with a strong midfield foursome of Stahl Gubag, Emmanuel Simon, Jacob Sabua and Obert Bika.
Experience showed instantly from the kick-off. Lae City began with attacking intent, and capitalised on several of Vitiaz’s nervy first touches and stray passes. In the first ten minutes, Vitiaz United barely had a sniff of possession in the opposition half; Lae were well on top, but were unable to turn domination into goals.
As the half wore on, Vitiaz grew in confidence, and pacy striker David had the first real chance of the game on 20 minutes, before confusion in the Lae City defence let him through on goal again – although Alwin Komolong, my man of the match, was there to save Lae’s blushes, as he was on several occasions throughout the match.
As predicted in our preview of the Grand Final, Emmanuel Simon played a hugely influential role in the midfield, and throughout the first half, he showed some deft touches, silky skills and winding dribbles to confound the Vitiaz midfield who were trying to dispossess him. I would not be surprised if Simon finds himself scouted by a foreign club within the next couple of seasons; the midfielder is still young enough to have a decent go at a semi-professional career in New Zealand or in one of the developing Asian nations.
Vitiaz’s best chance of the game came on 26 minutes when Mathew David was released on the left. A slightly heavy touch took the ball past Ronald Warisan in the Lae goal, but the angle was too tight for him to score in the open goal, with the ball rolling tantalisingly across the face of goal, much to Lae’s collective relief. Thereafter, Lae’s Ecuadorian Abdias Aguirre almost curled a shot into the far corner just after the half-hour mark, but it was Vitiaz’s Mathew David who looked the most dangerous throughout the first half: on 33 minutes, David put Airem under pressure at the back and sprinted past him, before bearing down on goal only to find Alwin Komolong in his way – again. David continued to pile pressure on the Lae defence and cause all sorts of problems running through the channels, but the champions held out to go into the break at nil-nil.
Lae once again came out strongly at the start of the second half, with Emmanuel Airem’s twinkle-toes dancing through the Vitiaz defence before his shot was blocked at the last moment by Junior Sigit. However, eight minutes into the second half came the breakthrough: Abdias Aguirre fired a fierce shot toward the goal, which was too hot for Vitiaz ‘keeper Russell Chris to handle, and Obert Bika was there to mop up the spilled ball. Bika wheeled away in celebration, ripping off his shirt and getting booked for his excesses, but the damage was done – Lae City were in front.
Once Lae were ahead, their management of the game was second-to-none. With a combination of (real or over-exaggerated?) injuries, tactical fouls, and time-wasting, they broke up the vast majority of the second half so much that Vitiaz United were unable to get a foothold in the game or develop any kind of flow or rhythm. Alwin Komolong’s defensive prowess was especially evident during these stages, with his strength and fitness breaking down any kind of vague Vitiaz forward movement with ease.
This game management almost came back to haunt Lae City after the fourth official revealed there would be nine minutes of stoppage time at the end of the time, but the champions were able to hold out and secure a very professional single-goal victory, and one which ensured they would be champions of Papua New Guinea for the sixth season in a row.
An excellent season all around, with a competitive regular season and high-quality playoffs, culminating in a gripping Grand Final. Emmanuel Simon secured the Player of the Season award – and deservedly so – while Vitiaz’ Jonathan Allen was presented with the Golden Boot thanks to his 12 goals in the regular season. Then Lae City got their hands on the trophy and K100,000 in prize money. Vitiaz can be proud of their efforts – though perhaps disappointed that their third-place finish in the regular season will not see them taste Champions League football next year – while Hekari will certainly be back for revenge once again next season.
For now, that’s all folks!