Whether it’s Auckland City FC or Team Wellington who lifts New Zealand Football’s Premiership Trophy, the result of tomorrow’s final at QBE Stadium in Auckland will be an historic one.
Oceania champions Auckland City are generally regarded as the benchmark team in this part of the world so it’s easy to forget they have not claimed the national title in their own country for two years.
Meanwhile Team Wellington will look to become the first team to achieve a three-peat in the national league since Waitakere United won four titles in a row.
Jose Figueira’s men have only lost three times during the regular season, twice to Eastern Suburbs and once to Waitakere United, finishing second on the ladder before defeating Canterbury United Dragons 1-0 at David Farrington Park last weekend to book their place in the final.
“It would be something really special,” Figueira said of the honour it would be to lift the trophy on Sunday afternoon.
“It is a great opportunity to be in the final and have a chance to create a little bit of history for the club. We’re excited to be in the final.”
Team Wellington first made history in the 2016 final when they came from behind to beat Auckland City 4-2 in extra-time of an extraordinary final. They because the first team outside of Auckland to win the title, and that momentum has continued.
“We are two teams who know each other inside out,” Figueira said.
“We have players who have played with each other and against each other a number of times. This year we drew 0-0 at Kiwitea Street and won 3-1 in the Charity Cup earlier in the season.
“In the past few years we have found a way to expose some of the weaknesses that they have. We believe that any team we come up against, we have the capability and the quality to score and we won’t change our approach for the final.”
For Auckland City, a win on Sunday would give them a record-breaking seventh ever national league title, taking them past Mt. Wellington and Christchurch United on the all-time list.
On top of that, tomorrow’s final is the first time in the league’s history that the same two teams have contested three consecutive finals.
Auckland City captain Angel Berlanga has enjoyed the highs of winning two grand finals with the Navy Blues, but has also suffered the heartache of four grand final defeats to Team Wellington and Waitakere United.
The 31-year-old is keen to turn things around and add at least one more domestic title to his win-loss ratio on Sunday.
“No one likes the feeling of losing Cup finals and it’s at the back of our minds how that felt to lose last year. Everyone will give an extra push to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
“Finals are always hard to play because they give a sense the match is a 50-50 situation and can go wither way. Over the course of the 2017-18 season we’ve played very well in the 18 regular season matches.
“But finals create unexpected situations and throw a lot of variables into the mix so you need to react positively to everything that happens.”
Auckland City have yet to beat Team Wellington this year and based on the two encounters they’ve had Berlanga believes QBE Stadium will be a tense environment on Sunday as the best teams in the country vie for New Zealand’s top football honour.
“We’re in for an evenly contested match and it could be very tight. Both ourselves and Team Wellington have defended very well throughout the whole campaign. There is a lot of respect both ways on and off the pitch between the two sides and it may take something special to decide a winner.”
Adding to the fascination of Sunday’s final is Auckland City FC’s extraordinary defensive record that stretches 12 matches (1,080 minutes) without conceding a goal in all competitions. The Navy Blues defence hasn’t conceded since January 13, 2018, when Ben Wade netted for Southern United in a 1-1 draw.
Does that add extra pressure to Auckland City FC’s objectives? Not according to Berlanga who says the so-called record run is merely an indicator as to how well his team is playing as a collective group.
“The record is a consequence of our hard work as a squad – everyone in the squad has put in a lot of miles on the pitch – no matter who has played in the team. There’s no pressure on us because of our defensive record as it shows that we’re playing well as a team and that we have good depth.
“Defensively we’ve been solid which in a final is good because up front we’re also very strong with Emiliano Tade, Callum McCowatt, Micah Lea’alafa, and so I hope everyone can have a good game and we win the final,” he added.
Auckland City FC’s record in domestic grand finals has stalled in recent seasons with the club losing four of the last six outings but Berlanga says the 10 finals contested between the two clubs shows that Sunday’s game is potentially there for the taking.
“It is a fact that we have lost the last two ISPS Handa Premiership grand finals but on the other hand we’ve beaten Team Wellington three times in a row in the OFC Champions League finals so the record between ourselves and Team Wellington is 50-50 in this context.
“We are highly motivated to do our best for the team, the club and our supporters on Sunday in what is going to be a very big occasion for everyone involved. We’re excited for the challenge set in front of us.”
The ISPS Handa Premiership Grand Final is set for QBE Stadium on Sunday 1 April 2018. The match kicks off at 4.35pm NZST and is live on Sky Sport.