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Premiership play-off teams nearly locked in

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

The play-off teams in the ISPS Handa Premiership are on the verge of being locked in while Auckland City have secured the minor premiership after the latest bout of action this afternoon.

Auckland have seemed destined for the minor honours ever since taking their winning run to double digits a few weeks ago and they have now officially wrapped up first place after edging out the Wellington Phoenix Reserves 2-1 at home, their 14th consecutive victory.

Just down the motorway in the Waikato, the play-off prospects of Hamilton Wanderers were finally extinguished, courtesy of a 4-2 win by the Canterbury United Dragons, whose own hopes of extending their season have now been very nearly secured.

Also all but claiming a berth in the top four are Team Wellington and Eastern Suburbs, who both still have plenty to play for though as they are engaged in a battle for second place, which importantly brings a home semi-final and potentially even a spot in the OFC Champions League.

Two-time champions Wellington, who finished runners-up last season after making their third consecutive final, had the chance to take a big step towards finishing second today in meeting Suburbs in the capital and they duly obliged with a vital 3-1 win.

With Suburbs having appeared the side best equipped to challenge Auckland City after embarking on an impressive run, Wellington provided a timely reminder that they are far from being counted out of the title equation themselves with a three-goal display in the first half.

They actually had to come from behind to pull it off, the visitors drawing first blood when the on-fire Callum McCowatt struck his 12th goal of the season - taking joint lead in the golden boot race in the process - just before the half hour. That only seemed to spark Wellington into life though and they soon equalised with a turn-and-shot from close range by Ross Allen.

Former All White Aaron Clapham then emerged victorious in a one-on-one battle with Suburbs goalkeeper Andrew Withers to give Wellington the lead before Allen notched his second from the penalty spot to make it 3-1 at the break.

Suburbs made an unlikely comeback even more difficult for themselves when All White Tim Payne was dismissed after taking down Andy Bevin, leaving his side having to play nearly all of the second half with only ten men.

"We were disappointed with aspects of the first half obviously, particularly conceding the goals we did," coach Danny Hay admitted.

"Then it was tough once Tim got sent off but the way the players responded to that and fought and battled made it quite difficult for Wellington. So we’re very proud of the effort, there’s just some things we have to go back and work a bit harder at."

Counterpart Jose Figueira was delighted with the display of his men, who showed few ill effects from playing their third game in a week.

"It was a big result and a big performance," he said.

"They’re a good side with a lot of weapons and they’ve shown that in the previous few weeks by scoring for fun. They had one or two good opportunities in the first ten minutes but after that I thought we fully deserved to go 3-1 up and could have had some more on another day."

While Figueira will be delighted to have inched further towards a top-two finish, he has no hope of catching Auckland City, who proved too good for the Wellington Phoenix Reserves. Youthful talent won the day for the Navy Blues with David Browne and Yousif Ali finding the net while a familiar name replied for the Phoenix, former Team Wellington skipper Justin Gulley making a swift goal-scoring return to the ISPS Handa Premiership after recently signing for the country’s only professional club.

The result leaves the ‘WeeNix’ still stranded at the bottom of the table but coach Paul Temple will be pleased to have run the minor premiers so close, albeit on the back of a gruelling schedule for Auckland City after their return from the Chinese New Year Cup in Hong Kong.

The action was even more enthralling in Hamilton, where Wanderers needed to earn all three points against Canterbury to keep their chances of sneaking into the play-offs alive. They didn’t make a good start in that quest as Maksym Kowal gave the Dragons an early lead with a sweetly-struck volley but they were back on track mid-way through the first half when Derek Tieku hit his first goal of the campaign.

Parity lasted just a few minutes though, captain Gary Ogilvie slamming home from the spot to give Canterbury a 2-1 half-time lead. Hamilton’s season then appeared dead and buried early in the second spell when Kowal helped himself to a brace at the second attempt but the door opened for the hosts again in spectacular fashion when Joe Nottage found the bottom corner with a sensational volley.

Despite Hamilton’s best efforts, that proved no more than false hope though as Canterbury went on to secure the points by adding a fourth through Stephen Hoyle’s tenth of the season.

The Cantabrians, who could still finish second themselves, now need only to be wary of the threat of fellow South Islanders Southern United, who still have an outside chance of wrestling away their play-off berth and face a visit by title-chasing Auckland City on Wednesday evening.

ISPS Handa Premiership Match Week 16

Auckland City 2 (David Browne 24’, Yousif Ali 52’)

Wellington Phoenix Reserves 1 (Justin Gulley 61’)

HT: 1-0

Team Wellington 3 (Ross Allen 33’, pen 45+1’, Aaron Clapham 38’)

Eastern Suburbs 1 (Callum McCowatt 27’)

HT: 3-1

Hamilton Wanderers 2 (Derek Tieku 28’, Joe Nottage 62’)

Canterbury United Dragons 4 (Maksym Kowal 8’, 53’, Gary Ogilvie pen 32’, Stephen Hoyle 72’)

HT: 1-2

Southern United vs Auckland City

Sunnyvale Park, Dunedin

Wednesday 13 February, 5.30pm

#ISPSHandaPrem #SUvAC

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