Auckland City overcame a local hoodoo to claim their fourth domestic title with a win over Waitakere United in the grand final of the New Zealand Football Championship yesterday. Auckland hadn't defeated their city rivals in eight previous meetings, either domestically or in the OFC O-League, over a two-year stretch dating back to the 2007 grand final that saw Auckland take the title.
Defending champions Waitakere had gone into the match as clear favourites having secured their third straight premiership a few weeks earlier after topping the regular season ladder. The 2008 FIFA Club World Cup participants will not have long to wait to seek revenge, however, as the two teams face off again in the final O-League group match next weekend, with the winner to claim a berth in the final of the continental club showpiece.
Big city dominance
Only two teams has ever won the NZFC in it's brief five-year history and the dominance of those two clubs from New Zealand's biggest city - Waitakere and Auckland City - never looked likely to be broken this season. Indeed, Chris Milicich's Waitakere were runaway victors in the abbreviated 14-round season, claiming the premiership by eight points.
Things were not so comfortable for Auckland, who pipped Southern rivals YoungHeart Manawatu and Team Wellington into second place by just two points. Also close to a berth in the top-four finals series was Hawke's Bay United from the traditional stronghold of Napier, and Waikato FC. Well off the pace were South Island pair Otago United and Canterbury United.
Team Wellington looked to have a genuine chance of overcoming Waitakere in the semi-final with the league's top-scorer, Luis Corrales, within their ranks. The 25-year-old former Costa Rica youth international scored 12 goals to edge one ahead of Waitakere's Fijian prodigy Roy Krishna and Manawatu's Jason Hayne over the course of the regular season.
As it was, the last four tie saw Waitakere claim a narrow 1-0 victory thanks to Krishna before completing the job in emphatic style with a 5-0 victory on their own turf. It was a different story in the other semi-final, where Auckland were forced to overcome a 3-1 first-leg loss to win 4-3 on aggregate with a double from talismanic striker Keryn Jordan.
Ecstasy and heartbreak
In the final, Waitakere had the benefit of playing at home, no small advantage when one considers they hadn't lost there in two years. The Oceania champions must have felt all was going to plan too when Allan Pearce benefited from Krishna's good work to slot home from close range on 15 minutes. Another piece of silverware looked all but guaranteed, in fact, until 12 minutes from time, when Jordan rose high in the penalty area to head home a James Pritchett cross.
The match appeared destined for extra time when Paul Urlovic fired a speculative shot from the edge of the area straight at Waitakere goalkeeper Richard Gillespie, who saw the ball slip through his grasp for a last minute winner. "You miss three one-on-ones and you don't win the game, end of story," said Milicich, refusing to blame his keeper. Krishna, a strong candidate for player of the season, was profligate in front of goal on the big occasion, notably heading a fifth-minute effort against the crossbar.
On the other side of the ledger, Auckland not only claim the domestic title, but go into next weekend's O-League crunch match with renewed confidence. Auckland need just a draw to force their way into a two-legged final against the Solomon Island's Koloale FC.