Any analysis of the forthcoming New Zealand Football Championship will inevitably focus on a familiar theme. Namely, can the dominance of Auckland City and Waitakere United be broken? The two representatives from the nation’s capital have swept all before them in the seven years of the national competition, with the pair crowned either premiers for topping the regular season table, or champions, in every season to date.
It is a dominance that has largely transferred to continental level, with the pair winning four of the five OFC O-League titles. A streak broken only by the unexpected rapid rise of Papua New Guinea’s Hekari United in 2010. Auckland City regained the Oceania crown last April and participation in the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup in Japan means their focus will be split three ways, at least during the early part of the season.
Duopoly’s unbroken streak
Auckland City and their cross-town rivals have, remarkably, claimed seven pieces of silverware each since the league commenced in 2004. The closest the duopoly’s run came to being broken was five long seasons ago, when Canterbury United lost on penalties against Auckland in the season finale.
A glance across the eight-team playing roster suggests the winning form of the Auckland two will be hard to break. Aspirants may however hope to take advantage of the pair’s continental focus which will see them play six O-League matches ahead of the domestic season’s conclusion in March.
Reigning champions Waitakere have an embarrassment of riches across a forward line which has a distinct Pacific Islands feel. Dynamic Fijian striker Roy Krishna will be joined in the forward line by Solomon Islander Gagame Feni, who links with the club from Canterbury. The attack also boasts Allan Pearce, who last season topped the league’s goalscoring table with 12 strikes.
At Kiwitea St, home of Auckland City, the quality of playing talent is equally impressive. Heading the list is New Zealand’s most capped international Ivan Vicelich who will again captain the team, while fellow New Zealand 2010 FIFA World Cup™ squad member Dave Mulligan is another notable name. The team has maintained its strong Spanish influence with the resigning of Angel Berlanga, Albert Riera and, most notably, one-time Barcelona midfielder Manuel Exposito, while midfielder Andreu Guerao has joined from Polonia Warsaw.
Auckland City claimed early bragging right on their cross-town rivals with a 3-2 win in last weekend’s Charity Cup. Despite winning both domestic honours last season, Waitakere coach Neil Emblen has claimed the underdog tag. “I think Auckland go in as heavy favourites,” said Emblen ahead of last week’s curtain-raiser. “They’ve had a sensational pre-season including the win over [Australian A-League club] Central Coast and ours has been a bit average to be honest.”
Hopefuls prepare for challenge
Team Wellington are perhaps best equipped to challenge the status quo, having last year finished third. The squad have an extremely youthful look but nevertheless, a highly talented one. Coach Matt Calcott has assembled some of the nation’s finest young players including no less than six members of the New Zealand side which performed with distinction at this year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia. Amongst the notables is defender Nick Branch who links up with the club from Waikato FC.
Making up last year’s finals series were Canterbury United who, this season, will have a formidable midfield pairing boasting international experience in the form of the highly-rated Aaron Clapham and Cole Peverley. United will play out of the newly opened ASB Football Park, formerly English Park, redeveloped in the wake of Christchurch’s disastrous earthquake earlier this year.
In the bottom half of the table, YoungHeart Manawatu will seek to bounce back after last season collecting the unenviable record of the league’s lowest ever points tally, a miserable return of just four points. The portents are however promising for the Palmerston North club, who are now guided by Stu Jacobs after many consistent years at Team Wellington. In attack Vanuatu striker Seule Soromon will lead the line having last been seen at this level two seasons ago when he was the league’s golden boot winner.