AUCKLAND – Waikato FC put itself into semi-final contention with a 3-1 over nine-man Otago in Ngaruawahia on Sunday after a trifecta of Saturday upsets closed the chasing pack to within striking distance of the early New Zealand Football Championship leaders.
Tom Jackson’s ninth minute strike gave visiting Otago the perfect start, but after two goals in two minutes from Waikato’s Stu Hogg and Nik-Keown Robson midway through the first half, a 43rd minute red card to Robbie Deeley meant Otago faced an uphill battle after the break.
Waikato were always in control from that point and a 90th minute Hogg penalty – with Rhys Henderson sent off for the offending tackle – merely confirmed back-to-back wins for Dave Edmondson’s men, who moved up to fifth.
The race for spots in an expanded top-four playoffs is sill tight with just three points separating the top six teams after four rounds.
YoungHeart Manawatu remained top on nine points despite an injury time 1-2 loss to visiting Hawke’s Bay, while reigning champions Waitakere United moved to second on seven points – with a game in hand – despite a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to bottom-of-the-table Canterbury United.
Auckland City slipped to third after a 1-2 defeat to Team Wellington in the Capital while Waikato and Hawke’s Bay – who also have a game in hand – joined those two teams on six points after weekend wins.
On Saturday, YoungHeart Manawatu’s charmed start to the season ended at home to Hawke’s Bay United, who snatched victory with a header from former All White Che Bunce two minutes into injury time.
The early season high-flyers fell behind to a coolly-taken one-on-one finish from Seule Soromon in the 21st minute but drew level with through captain Adam Cowan just before the halftime break, and looked set to at least maintain their unbeaten run until Bunce’s heroics.
Waitakere were on course to take advantage of Manawatu’s slip-up when Benjamin Totori danced through Canterbury’s defence for a 1-0 lead inside 15 minutes at Douglas Field in Henderson.
But the Champions already had one foot on the plane to Japan for their FIFA Club World Cup showdown against Adelaide United and an improved Canterbury side were unlucky to only score once in the second half – Gareth Turnbull’s 72nd minute header – and finish with just a point, albeit their first of the season.
Also on Saturday, Wellington notched their second win in 14 attempts over Auckland, and their first at home, in a tense midfield-dominated match that only came to life with an hour up on the clock as Luis Corrales finished Sam Blackburn’s cross at the second attempt.
Substitute Paul Urlovic added spark for Auckland, winning – and converting – a 77th minute penalty to restore parity, although it lasted only a minute as former Auckland winger Bryan Little put Wellington back in front with a deflected free-kick.
Waitakere take leave from the NZFC next week heading to Japan for the FIFA Club World Cup with warm-up matches in China along the way.
In their absence, Waitakere will relinquish second place, temporarily at least, to the winner of Sunday’s Auckland-Hawke’s Bay clash at Kiwitea Street, while the playoff credentials of both Waikato and YoungHeart Manawatu will be tested in Ngaruawahia. Team Wellington will also jump straight back into the top four if they can defeat Canterbury in Christchurch.
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Round 4 Results
YoungHeart Manawatu 1 (Adam Cowan 44)
Hawke’s Bay United 2 (Seule Soromon 21, Che Bunce 90+2)
Waitakere United 1 (Benjamin Totori 13)
Canterbury United 1 (Gareth Turnbull 72)
Team Wellington 2 (Luis Corrales 60, Bryan Little 78)
Auckland City 1 (Paul Urlovic 77-pen)
Waikato FC 3 (Stu Hogg 34, 90-pen, Nik-Keown Robson 35)
Otago United 1 (Tom Jackson 9)
|Hawke’s Bay United||3||2||0||1||5||4||1||6|
Story courtesy NZ Football. Photo: Geoff Dickenson