There were only two matches in the ISPS Handa Premiership this weekend as the OFC Champions League claimed some of the limelight and both clashes followed a similar script, the away sides earning narrow 2-1 wins.
With Hamilton Wanderers dropping out of the play-off running long ago and the Wellington Phoenix Reserves also finding victories hard to come by, there was little riding on the bottom-of-the-table meeting between the pair at Mount Maunganui in terms of any wider impact.
But the sides themselves had plenty to play for as pride was on the line in the battle to avoid the unwanted wooden spoon. Wanderers escaped that fate by the skin of their teeth last season, being saved from last place only by the poor form of Southern United, but have had no such luck in this campaign and went in against the Phoenix needing three points to have any chance of leap-frogging them on the table.
They now have no hope of doing so after falling to a 2-1 loss, their 12th in the 16 matches they have played so far. After a hard-fought first half, Ricki Herbert’s side looked likely to go into the break on level terms but instead found themselves a goal down, James McGarry putting the ‘Wee Nix’ ahead on 45 minutes.
The home side rallied though and hit back through Steffano Riley five minutes after the interval to set up a wrestle for the points in the second stanza. That was eventually won by the Phoenix but ironically it was a Hamilton boot that inflicted a blow that proved fatal as the unfortunate Xavier Pratt turned the ball into his own net.
Wanderers now have to accept the wooden spoon in their second ISPS Handa Premiership while the Phoenix – whose triumph was just their fourth of the season – have Hawke’s Bay United firmly in their sights.
The Bay are now just a point ahead of the Phoenix youngsters after falling to the Canterbury United Dragons, who left it late to claim a come-from-behind win in Napier.
The hosts had not tasted victory at their Bluewater Stadium home all campaign but looked on track to put that right when Sam St De Croix, a transfer window signing from Hamilton Wanderers, gave them the lead just past the hour with his first touch after coming on as a substitute.
But Canterbury had their hopes of a home semi-final on the line and responded accordingly, Stephen Hoyle rifling home an equaliser in the 78th minute before Futa Nakamura completed the comeback with a late winner.
It was a fifth straight victory for Canterbury, who started the season sluggishly but have found form at the right time and – with Auckland City and Team Wellington competing in the OFC Champions League this weekend – are now third and just two points off top spot.
ISPS Handa Premiership Table: Auckland City 34 points (16 games), Team Wellington 33 (16), Canterbury United 32 (16), Eastern Suburbs 29 (15), Tasman United 20 (16), Southern United 18 (16), Waitakere United 16 (15), Hawke's Bay United 16 (16), Wellington Phoenix reserves 15 (16), Hamilton Wanderers 6 (16)
ISPS Handa Premiership Results
Hamilton Wanderers 1 (Steffano Riley 50’)
Wellington Phoenix 2 (James McGarry 45’, own goal 77’)
Hawke’s Bay United 1 (Sam St De Croix 64’)
Canterbury United Dragons 2 (Stephen Hoyle 78’, Futa Nakamura 87’)