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JR's Match of the Week
Offside Flag Denies Auckland Win Over Wellington
by Jeremy Ruane
The offside flag twice - once controversially - came to the rescue of reigning ISPS Handa Premiership champions Team Wellington at Kiwitea Street on February 4, as they thwarted Auckland City's attempts to extend their advantage over their opponents to four points at the top of the table.

A cagey first half saw both teams enjoy spells of possession early on, but there was always the feeling that the match was just an ill-timed tackle away from exploding. Mario Bilen set the tone with a bone-crunching tackle on Jack-Henry Sinclair just thirty seconds into the contest.

Chances were very much at a premium, with Wellington contriving the first of them in the tenth minute, albeit at the wrong end of the park, as Scott Hilliar went close to putting through his own net.

The first shot on goal took eighteen minutes to materialise, Fabrizio Tavano's dipping, swerving twenty-five yarder grazing the top of Scott Basalaj's goal. The 'keeper's resulting goal kick sailed out of play - Basalaj's distribution throughout proceedings was poor.

Wellington were next to fire a shot in anger, their lone attempt of the half. Eric Molloy secured possession on the left before cutting inside Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi in the twentieth minute.

On entering the penalty area, he eyed up the bottom far corner and unleashed a curling effort which was bound for its intended destination until Bilen's size twelve boot stopped it in mid-flight.

There was little of note to write home about until ten minutes before half-time, when Callum McCowatt worked an opening for Emiliano Tade. He evaded the recovering challenge of Roy Kayara but couldn't find a way past Basalaj at close quarters.

Two minutes later, the pair were in again, this time with an even better opportunity to break the deadlock. But with Tade in yards of space on the left, McCowatt, who had broken clear on the right and lured Basalaj out of goal, saw his attempt to play in his front-running partner cut out by Hilliar's vital interception.

From Tade's resulting corner, McCowatt headed past the near post, while three minutes before half-time the Argentine went close with a curling effort past the far upright, after combining with Micah Lea'alafa and Tavano to prise open Wellington's right-hand flank.

The second spell began with Andy Bevin - he worked his socks off for the cause - stinging the gloves of Enaut Zubikarai from twenty-five yards, after which the title-holders were largely on the back foot as Auckland strove to break them down.

They were aided in the fiftieth minute by a great advantage play from referee Nick Waldron, who came back and punished Angus Kilkolly with a yellow card when the opportunity availed itself after the attack had been thwarted.

The midfielder's rash challenge felled Takuya Iwata in full flight, but City were able to maintain The  
possession in spite of the foul, the culmination of the attack seeing Tade slip in Lea'alafa, only for the Solomon Islands speedster to stumble at just the wrong moment as he entered the penalty area, allowing Kayara to clear the danger.

On the hour, a stray back-pass from Hudson-Wihongi was pounced on by Sinclair, only for Iwata to hurtle across and cut off his progress towards goal. City's fullback featured again three minutes later, this time at the other end of the park as Kilkolly felled him from behind in the penalty area.

Referee Waldron wasn't interested in Auckland's penalty pleas on this occasion, but he afforded them another great advantage in the 66th minute as Wellington once again looked to spoil their opponents' play via foul means rather than fair.

Lea'alafa was the beneficiary, the speedster swiftly linking with Tavano, whose angled through ball rewarded the run of overlapping substitute Alfie Rogers. His low cross found Lea'alafa and McCowatt converging on the same spot at the near post, allowing Justin Gulley - immense in defence for the visitors - to avert the danger as the City duo got in each other's way.

Nineteen minutes from time, Rogers released Tade on the left, from where he jinked inside and lashed a twenty yarder at Basalaj. And after Kayara had curled a handily placed twenty-five yard free-kick narrowly past the near post, the league's leading marksman was thwarted by the defensive wall following an indirect free-kick awarded for a back-pass to Basalaj.

Ten minutes from time, City thought they'd made the breakthrough their attacking efforts fully merited. Tade's route to goal was blocked, so he laid the ball back to Tavano, who unleashed a curling effort which Basalaj could only fumble. Lea'alafa, following in, drilled home the rebound, only to be thwarted by the offside flag.

While that call was fairly clear-cut, the next offside call, two minutes later, was anything but - how can a player be offside when the ball has been pulled back to him from the by-line? That was the case as Rogers and Tade combined to play in substitute Reid Drake, who picked out Lea'alafa inside the goal area. As the net bulged, the whistle blew - the goal would not stand.

City kept on pressing - the Oceania champions were the only team playing to win this encounter - but all they could muster before the final whistle was a deflected twenty-five yarder from Tade which Basalaj grabbed greedily, ensuring that this top-of-the-table tussle would end as it began, without a goal having been registered on the scoreboard in between times.

Auckland:     Zubikarai; Hudson-Wihongi, Berlanga, Bilen (booked, 1), Iwata; Tavano, Edge (Rogers, 63), Howieson; McCowatt (Drake, 76), Tade (booked, 31), Lea'alafa
Wellington:     Basalaj; Kayara, Hilliar, Gulley; Kilkolly (booked, 50) (Hailemariam, 74), Ilich, Barcia, Molloy; Bevin (Diane, 90), Allen (booked, 26), Sinclair
Referee:     Nick Waldron

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