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Auckland City v. Team Wellington, 15/2/15
Champions Put Pretenders Firmly In Their Place
by Jeremy Ruane
Reigning ASB Premiership champions Auckland City made a statement at Kiwitea Street on February 15 as they roundly trounced second-placed Team Wellington 3-0 to surge four points clear at the top of the table, with a game in hand to boot.

The visitors began brightly, an unfit-looking Paul Ifill just failing to make contact with an Alex Feneridis cross to the near post in the second minute after the former City midfielder's corner had been cleared back to him.

Four minutes later, Wellington squandered a glorious chance to open the scoring. Takuya Iwata felled Jarrod Smith just inside the area, prompting referee Peter O'Leary to point to the penalty spot.

Up stepped Cole Peverley to do the honours, and he duly sent Tamati Williams the wrong way. But the midfielder could only look on in horror as the ball careered well past the opposite upright as well.

How Wellington were punished for that moment of profligacy. Two minutes later, City produced a scintillating move down the right featuring Ivan Carril, Angel Berlanga, Mario Bilen and Ivan Vicelich, whose pass invited Ryan de Vries to get in behind the visitors' defence and pull the ball back for David Browne.

As the striker gathered the ball, Peverley blundered into him from behind, and once more, referee O'Leary pointed to the spot. John Irving stepped up for City, and his finish was unerring - 1-0, nine minutes in.

Three minutes later, Browne was again brought to ground, this time just outside the penalty area by a rough-house tackle from Bill Robertson, who has previous on this pitch where challenges of a less savoury nature are concerned.

Carril is a set-piece specialist, and make no mistake, what he unleashed was one of the best free-kicks this ground has ever seen, and a sure-fire contender for goal of the season.

The sheer power and pace of the shot were stunning, the ball careering round - or was it over? It happened so quickly - the wall and crashing into the back of the net while Michael O'Keeffe was still in the process of diving to his right. A spellbinding goal, and one which left the Wellingtonians with a mountain to climb.

Frankly, they never escaped base camp, because they simply weren't allowed to. City produced by far their best domestic display of the season in this top-of-the-table tussle, denying Team Wellington the right to play while handing them a footballing lesson in the process.

This led to a fair bit of frustration in the visitors' ranks, and they were fortunate to find referee Peter O'Leary in a fairly lenient mood throughout proceedings. Let's just say the official could, and perhaps should, have issued many more cards than the two yellow ones he did brandish - a couple of a red hue, for separate violent conduct incidents involving Ian Hogg and Tim Myers, spring to mind in this regard.

As an aside, one must have a degree of sympathy for all the players in the ASB Premiership, given the inconsistency of match officials from game to game. A few weeks ago at Kiwitea Street, John Rowbury dealt with a violent conduct incident by sending off the offender. Yet in this match, offences similar in nature aren't being punished in similar fashion very frustrating all round.

Occasionally, Wellington broke free of the straitjacket by which they were bound. Mike Gwyther's nineteenth minute snapshot on the turn, from a Feneridis corner, was smothered by Tamati Williams, the only save of note City's 'keeper was called upon to make in the entire match.

His opposite number, O'Keeffe, was far busier, denying de Vries in the sixteenth minute after a lovely ball from Takuya Iwata had released Browne,
who was a repeat offender throughout this contest where taking an unnecessary extra touch was concerned.

Such as in the 42nd minute, when Carril, Oscar Garcia - a deft back-heel - and Angel Berlanga combined to set up the young striker for a first-time shot. Taking a touch on this occasion allowed Robertson to intervene.

De Vries wasn't able to complete the first half, a rugged challenge from Hogg leaving him nursing a knee injury five minutes before the interval. Irving had almost beaten the same path to City's dressing room moments before, his diving-headed clearance of a Feneridis free-kick leaving the Auckland defender slumped on the turf and requiring treatment ten minutes before the interval.

He was able to continue, as did Auckland's dominance after half-time. Marko Dordevic saw his header, from a Browne corner, smothered by O'Keeffe four minutes after play had resumed, while Garcia's jinking run past three opponents seconds later wasn't matched by the finish, the ball blazing over the bar.

Unperturbed, the Spanish striker tried again, this time with a 51st minute cross-shot which brought the very best out of O'Keeffe, the red-clad 'keeper's flying save his best stop of the match.

Only desperate Wellington defending prevented Vicelich from extending City's lead in the 59th minute, after the visitors had failed to clear a Sam Burfoot free-kick, while another set-piece delivery from the substitute was met by the head of Garcia four minutes later.

How he climbed as high as he did to head the ball, given Wellington's plethora of tall timber throughout the team, was one thing. How O'Keeffe managed to keep it out was something else again - the airborne 'keeper's reflex action saw him stick out a leg to block Garcia's goalbound header when a goal seemed a certainty.

City afforded themselves a brief respite around twenty minutes from time, and Team Wellington wasted little time in endeavouring to force their way back into the contest. Feneridis delivered a couple of free-kicks towards the danger zone in this time, with Vicelich heading one over his own crossbar, while the other struck the side-netting.

The home team went straight down the other end and reasserted their authority, with Bilen battering a twenty-five yarder over the bar before a bizarre incident - one of those violent conduct episodes referred to earlier - which left Iwata looking up at the sky as referee O'Leary called both captains together and requested calm.

Vicelich remonstrated with the official, and with good reason, but a free-kick was City's lot on this occasion, one which Wellington dealt with capably. O'Keeffe kept out another effort from Browne before the final whistle, but prior to this, Auckland delivered the coup de grace in the 89th minute.

Adam McGeorge picked out Garcia on the right with a peach of a pass, allowing the striker to set off on an angled right-to-left run which saw him slalom past four defenders to leave himself one-on-one with O'Keeffe.

The 'keeper stood not a prayer as the Spanish striker executed a sumptuous finish to cap off a superb all-round display from the reigning champions, their 3-0 win a richly deserved one over pretenders to the crown who were well and truly put in their place by the 2014 FIFA Club World Cup third place-getters.

Auckland:     Williams; Berlanga, Irving, Dordevic, Iwata; Bilen, Vicelich, Carril (Burfoot, 48); de Vries (McGeorge, 40), Garcia, Browne
Wellington:     O'Keeffe; Cowan (Rosenthal, 66), Myers, Robertson, Hogg; Corrales (booked, 26) (Bechar, 74), Feneridis (booked, 23), Peverley, Smith; Ifill, Gwyther (Fa'arodo, 84)
Referee:     Peter O'Leary

National League