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Grand Final 2016
Wellington Stun Auckland To Win Maiden Title
by Jeremy Ruane
Team Wellington came from behind to stun reigning champions Auckland City 4-2 after extra time at QBE Stadium on March 10 and take out their maiden ASB Premiership title, as well as qualify for the 2017 OFC Champions League.

City came into the match seeking some history of their own - the completion of an unbeaten season, and with it, the chance to become the first team to win a record seventh National League crown.

But while they've been the team which has set the standards all season long - they came into this final on a 28-match unbeaten run - they failed to consistently perform to those standards on the night when it mattered most, and suffered the disappointment of finishing as runners-up in the Grand Final for the third time in six seasons.

The first half was largely an arm wrestle between two sides who, while keen to satisfy their respective objectives, didn't want to have do so after handing their opponents the early advantage.

As a consequence, chances were at a premium, the first of them falling Wellington's way in the ninth minute when Alex Feneridis pinged the ball forward for Luis Corrales, who got in between Jesse Edge and Diego Rivas only to stumble at the vital moment.

Dae Wook Kim mopped up, then gave Auckland a fright by executing the perfect air-shot in his own penalty area, succeeding in his quest at the second attempt, under pressure from Corrales.

Two minutes later, Takuya Iwata's slick footwork complete wrong-footed an opponent and allowed the fullback to set up a chance for Emiliano Tade. He dragged his eighteen-yarder past the near post.

Wellington pressed again seven minutes later, Fergus Neil letting rip from thirty-five yards which fizzed a yard past the post at most. The southerners continued to press four minutes later, albeit with the help of Edge, who gifted possession to Corrales.

He dashed to the edge of the penalty area before letting fly, only for Rivas to parry his effort. Ben Harris, later presented with the Golden Boot as the league's leading scorer, raced in looking to turn home the rebound, but Kim got there first to concede a corner.

Leo Villa's delivery was a gem, with Edge having to head the ball clear from beneath his crossbar to prevent the ball going in directly. This came at the expense of another corner - Wellington had a few of them in the first twenty-five minutes - but on this occasion, Auckland cleared their lines and launched a counter-attack.

Micah Lea'alafa's pace was integral to the raid, as was his raking angled through ball from half-way which sought out the charging figure of Joao Moreira. He was about a yard away from latching onto it when Scott Basalaj cleared his lines on the edge of his penalty area.

City threatened twice more before the interval, firstly in the 36th minute when Moreira took on three opponents after Ryan de Vries latched onto a stray pass. The Portuguese striker lost his way on that occasion, but sixty seconds later he combined with Mario Bilen to pick out de Vries with a cross which the striker met with an arcing header.

Basalaj, leaping backwards, pulled off a super save to tip the ball over the bar and ensure the first half concluded as it had begun, with no goals on the scoreboard.

That situation changed in the 52nd minute, when, from broken play, Tom Jackson thundered home a twenty-five yard piledriver to fire Team Wellington in front and ignite a contest which, to this point, hadn't really got going.

The goal certainly served its purpose, much to the delight of the 1580-strong crowd, who now knew they had a contest on their hands. They also witnessed a refereeing decision in the 59th minute which was more than a little harsh, and that's being polite.

A sumptuous back-heeled flick by Tade on the left flank allowed Iwata to dash in behind Wellington's defence and get to the by-line, from where he looked to pick out a team-mate with a cross.

Anthony Hobbs, Bill Robertson and Chris Bale collectively succeeded in their quest to block this delivery, but when Robertson then launched a clearance which struck Bale's arm a mere metre away, referee Matt Conger didn't hesitate in pointing to the penalty spot, to the disbelief of all present, not least a cluster of irate Wellington players who surrounded the official seeking the reason behind the decision.

City weren't complaining, and after Moreira had rammed home the penalty, things were all tied up at 1-1 after 61 minutes. The goal gave the reigning champions fresh impetus, and over the course of the next 25 minutes, they dominated proceedings, prompting a host of rash challenges from Wellington players who last their way a bit temperament-wise during this spell.

The introduction of Darren White off the bench
had given City fresh impetus by this time, and in the 64th minute he came within a stride of getting on the end of a lofted pass from Tade, after Bilen and Moreira had linked with the playmaker to open up Wellington's defence.

Two minutes later, the newcomer was denied by Basalaj's save at his feet as he looked to work a one-two with de Vries, while White then sent Moreira dashing towards goal in the 69th minute, the striker drifting past three players before getting it all wrong when it came to firing his shot.

Seventeen minutes from time, Tade's perceptive pass was just a yard too far in front of Moreira as he looked to play the striker in with just Basalaj to beat, while five minutes later, a magnificent angled cross-field pass from Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi allowed de Vries to run at the defence before holding play up as team-mates made their supporting runs.

Among those arriving was Bilen, who was the option to whom de Vries turned on this occasion, only for the midfielder to undo his team-mate's good work with a poor cross.

Prior to this, Wellington had gone close to regaining the lead against the run of play when Harris directed his header straight at Rojas on receipt of a cross from Hobbs. But when the net eventually bulged, nine minutes from time, it was the reigning champions who were celebrating.

Following yet another Harris foul - referee Conger finally saw fit to book the repeat offender after this challenge - the resulting Tade free-kick found Kim ghosting in behind the defence, and from eight yards out he guided an unchallenged header past Basalaj to give Auckland a 2-1 advantage.

Only a vital tackle by Villa two minutes later denied Tade in the act of shooting after de Vries had led a counter-attack, with splendid support from Moreira. The Argentine then pressed relentlessly as Wellington looked for a way back into the contest, Basalaj only just getting his clearance away in the 86th minute as Tade bore down on him.

That clearance resulted in a Wellington attack which resulted in Iwata clumsily fouling Harris in the area. There were no protests from Auckland as referee Conger pointed to the spot, from where substitute Cole Peverley sent Rivas the wrong way to level the scores two minutes from time - 2-2.

Would there be a last-gasp winner before stoppage time? If there had been, it would have been the last kick of the game, but Hudson-Wihongi's twenty-five yard free-kick, which curled low round the defensive wall, was beaten away by the plunging figure of Basalaj to ensure a further thirty minutes would be necessary to separate these sides.

Wellington only needed three of those extra minutes to retake the lead. Hobbs' long throw-in wasn't cleared, and Andy Bevin's header forward was punched off Magno Viera's head by Rivas, who appeared to impede the 'keeper in the process. The ball dropped perfectly for Harris to volley home, and despite Auckland's protests, the goal was awarded.

3-2 Wellington, but within three minutes, City went close to levelling once more. Angel Berlanga worked a one-two with White on the right which resulted in Auckland's captain picking out Moreira with a cross. The striker's header ricocheted off a defender, affording Basalaj a comfortable save.

Back came the visitors, eager to consolidate their advantage. Another long throw-in from Hobbs was cleared to Jackson, whose super fifteen yard curling effort struck both the underside of the crossbar and the inside of Rivas' left-hand post before rebounding into play.

Harris pounced on the ricochet, only to see Rivas turn his shot round the post for a corner, which Peverley delivered onto the head of Jackson. His header arced over Rivas and just under the bar - 4-2 Wellington, and the title-holders with it all to do if they harboured hopes of retaining their crown, and completing that rare feat - an unbeaten season - in the process.

Over the course of the last twenty minutes of play, they attempted to bridge the gap, but more often than not resolute Wellington defending held sway, City being restricted to a couple of long-range efforts from Clayton Lewis and Hudson-Wihongi in the time remaining.

Without Tade - withdrawn in the 87th minute - and the absent Fabrizio Tavano, City lacked the guile to unlock Wellington's defence in the time remaining, and when the final whistle sounded, the men from the capital celebrated their maiden ASB Premiership title in fitting fashion.

Auckland:     Rivas; Berlanga, Kim, Edge, Iwata (Milne, 102); Bilen, Tade (Lewis, 87), Hudson-Wihongi; Lea'alafa (White, 58 (booked, 112), Moreira, de Vries (booked, 82)
Wellington:     Basalaj; Hobbs, Robertson, Bale (booked, 63), Neil; Feneridis, Villa (booked, 60) (Viera, 85), Barcia (Peverley, 55 (booked, 95)); Corrales (Bevin, 65), Jackson, Harris (booked, 80)
Referee:     Matt Conger




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