The National, Monday 05th March 2012
By HENRY MORABANG
HEKARI United’s hope of making the O-League final for the second time was dashed with a last-gasp 1-1 draw with reigning champions Auckland City at Lloyd Robson Oval in Port Moresby on Saturday.
After a goalless opening half, Hekari led 1-0 15 minutes into the second half courtesy of a diving header from Fijian import Maciu Dunadamu for the first score of the afternoon.
However, Auckland midfielder Alex Feneridis curled home a spectacular free kick late in the match to shatter any chance of the PNG champions making an appearance in the final this season.
The draw sees Auckland book a second successive spot in the final.
The visiting New Zealand team went into the game as the only undefeated side in Group B, and they needed just a point to book their spot for May’s two-game final series against the Group A winners.
Hekari backed by a raucous home crowd dominated the game throughout the opening half in humid conditions and enjoyed a better than even amount of possession.
Auckland’s Spanish import Manuel Exposito had an early scoring opportunity but was judged off-side.
Not to be outdone Hekari striker Kema Jack and Maciu Dunadamu continued to apply pressure on the City defence.
Midfielder David Muta and Samuel Kini had the visitors scrambling to contain their inter-play which left the Kiwis flat-footed on several occassions.
Stylish flanker Wira Wama and Kini had two good opportunities but their strikes went over the cross bar.
The Port Moresby heat did not do the visitors any favours while the home side as expected were better adapted to the heat.
In the second half, Dunadamu executed a diving header from an Andrew Lepani cross to catch City goalkeeper Tamati Williams in no-man’s land for the first goal.
Despite several Auckland players looking the worse for wear Exposito and flanker Luis Corrales always looked dangerous every time they were in enemy territory.
In the backline captain Ivan Vicelich and midfielder Alex Feneridis played effecintly to hold off Hekari raids.
But Auckland, who put in a subdued performance by their standards and were clearly affected by the stifling heat, received a boost when Hekari’s fullback Pita Bolatoga was sent off late in the match for striking an opponent.
Having the extra man boosted the Aucklanders and saw them push for the equaliser in the final quarter of the match.
That pressure was rewarded in injury time when Feneridis’ goal dashed Hekari’s finals hope final.
Hekari coach Jerry Allen said the turning point was when Bolaitoga was sent off which “put our plans backward”.
However, he gave credit to his players for putting up a good fight against a professional team in Auckland City.
“It was a tough game and they were probably better than us for the most part to be honest,” Auckland City coach Ramon Tribulietx said.
“They knocked it around well but the field was not in great condition which didn’t help us.
“It was a great free kick from Alex that got us the result we needed and I think we deserve to be in the final; perhaps not based on this performance but definitely overall.
“It was a very hot day and the field was a lot bigger than what we are used to at home and that didn’t make it any easier, the heat definitely affected us.”