The New Zealand national league reached a familiar denouement on Sunday, with Waitakere United and Auckland City meeting in the season finale. The pair are by far the most successful sides in the nine-year history of the competition, having won every edition between them, although rarely has the title been decided amid such drama.
Waitakere were crowned kings for the fourth time in succession, edging one ahead of their cross-town rivals in New Zealand’s most populace city. However, not only did they need an extra-time winner - they only forced the additional 30 minutes after Roy Krishna’s last-minute goal cancelled what seemed a title-clinching strike from Auckland’s Chris Bale just moments earlier.
The pair now have the OFC Champions League - qualification for which was based on last year’s domestic season - to focus on, with the rebranded continental competition commencing in a fortnight. As always, the Oceania champion will qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup, the 2013 edition of which will be held in Morocco this December. Auckland City have won three of the previous four continental crowns since Waitakere’s most recent victory, with the New Zealand domination broken only by a ground-breaking win for Papua New Guinea’s Hekari United. Oceania Football Confederation are yet to confirm qualifying criteria for next year’s competition.
The 14-round regular season was also largely dominated by the Auckland-based duo, who lost just one game apiece. This was in contrast to last season, when Auckland City were comfortable victors at the top of the ladder, while Waitakere were a distant third only to finish the season with momentum and claim the championship crown.
Canterbury United this time dropped back a place to third, while east coast-based Hawke’s Bay United edged out Team Wellington for the fourth and final play-off berth. It was once again a disappointing campaign for Waikato FC, Otago United and YoungHeart Manawatu, who rounded out the bottom spots on the eight-team ladder, with the latter again handed the wooden spoon, albeit only on goal difference.
In the goalscoring stakes, Waitakere’s prolific Fijian striker Roy Krishna took home the golden boot by bagging 12 goals during the regular season. Krishna follows in the recent footsteps of Papua New Guinea-born George Slefendorfas and Vanuatuan Seule Soromon as Oceania players from outside New Zealand who have claimed the crown. Just a goal off the pace was Canterbury’s livewire midfielder Aaron Clapham, with Hawke’s Bay’s Sean Lovemore a further goal away.
And then there were four
The finals series again consisted of two two-legged semi-finals with the respective victors meeting to decide the champions. Any hopes of the Auckland domination being broken were firmly extinguished, with Waitakere inflicting a particularly remarkable victory over Hawke’s Bay. Krishna was again at the fore, scoring five goals in the two matches as the defending champions ran out convincing 10-5 aggregate victors.
The other semi-final was a more even affair, although Auckland built upon a 2-1 away victory with a 3-1 home triumph. Auckland, whose season was again disrupted by December’s visit to the FIFA Club World Cup, were once more well served by a host of well-known local, and in some cases, international names, led by evergreen New Zealand defender Ivan Vicelich. They again boasted a Spanish flavour, with established key personnel such as Manel Exposito and Albert Riera, boosted by the mid-season arrival of striker Gustavo Souto, who provided the Oceania champions with a number of important goals.
Once again the decider was full of incident, maintaining the record for excitement of a fixture in which only once has there been fewer than four goals. This time Waitakere’s strikers – Allan Pearce and Krishna – delivered handsomely, bagging a brace apiece. Pearce, the league’s all-time top scorer, found the net in his fifth grand final, with the highlight of his contribution the winning strike ten minutes into extra time. Goals in each half from Exposito, combined with Bale’s last strike against his former club had the crown seemingly bound for a return to Auckland City, until Krishna’s last-gasp intervention.
Victory concluded a remarkable campaign for Waitakere, who completed a domestic treble, which includes the pre-season Charity Cup and minor premiership for topping the regular season ladder. They now have the chance to further bolster their silverware collection at the upcoming OFC Champions League, which will conclude in May.