The Stirling Sports Premiership final will be a repeat of last year’s showdown between Auckland City and Team Wellington after the latter defeated Waitakere United on penalties this afternoon to finally settle a 12-goal thriller.
With Wellington the league’s top scorers and featuring golden boot winner Tom Jackson in their ranks, there was expected to be plenty of goalmouth action in the second semi-final at David Farrington Park and that proved to be the case in a remarkable contest.
After an evenly-fought opening to proceedings, it was the visitors who drew first blood in the 35th minute. German striker Pascal Reinhardt got a slight touch on a free kick before the ball appeared to then be bundled home by an unfortunate defender as a pile of bodies flew in at the back post.
There was no doubt about the identity of the next goal-scorer though as Wellington got back on level terms in fine style, Justin Gulley playing a sharp one-two with Nicolas Zambrano before firing into the far corner on the stroke of half-time.
It was an opportune time to score and would have altered the half-time team talks of both coaches significantly. It was Waitakere boss Milicich who initially got the best response from his charges though as United re-took the lead five minutes into the second spell.
It was again Reinhardt on the end of the move and he made sure it would be his name that went onto the scoresheet this time by heading in a perfectly-flighted cross by Keegan Linderboom. And it got even better for the west Aucklanders in the 66th minute when Linderboom played in Morgan down the right and the midfielder finished with a dink over Wellington goalkeeper Scott Basalaj.
At 3-1 down, the home side looked in danger of being dead and buried but hit back strongly to show exactly why they are the most lethal team in the league. Nicolas Zambrano gave them hope just a couple of minutes after Waitakere’s third, getting in behind the defence before scoring at the second attempt and the comeback was complete in the 75th minute.
The equaliser came from the boot of Jackson, who slotted his 17th – and one of the most important – goal of the season from the penalty spot to keep Wellington’s dreams of glory alive. But that didn’t last long though as Waitakere struck again soon after, Morgan finding the bottom corner from the edge of the area for his second of the afternoon to make it 4-3.
Now having to somehow claw their way back once more, Wellington then went and made things even harder for themselves when Guillermo Moretti received a second yellow card and was sent off.
Wellington refused to let the dismissal stamp out their prospects though and the remarkable scoring sequence continued with another Jackson penalty in one of the last kicks of regular time. That took a gripping encounter into extra-time and it was Waitakere who wrestled the early initiative when Dylan Stansfield struck almost immediately.
That left 10-man Wellington needing to equalise yet again and they somehow managed to pull it off as Joel Stevens tucked a Nathaniel Hailemariam cross in at the far post for 5-5 in the 113th minute. Stevens then put his side in front for the first time in the afternoon in spectacular fashion, creating room for himself before lobbing Pirmin Strasser to spark wild scenes of celebration from the home fans, who thought they had now found the winner in an epic encounter.
But they were soon crestfallen as Reinhardt prodded home his second and Waitakere’s sixth with only seconds left on the clock to take the contest into a penalty shootout.
That provided a stage for one of the two goalkeepers to become a hero and it was Basalaj who grasped that opportunity with both hands, pulling off a hat-trick of saves to give Nico Kirwan the chance to put Wellington through with the final spot kick. Kirwan, the son of former All Black John, took up the invitation and duly converted to finally see off the challenge of Waitakere and give Wellington the chance to defend their title in Sunday’s final at QBE Stadium in Auckland.
Team Wellington coach Jose Figueira
Stirling Sports Premiership Semi-Finals
Team Wellington 6 (Justin Gulley 45’, Nicolas Zambrano 68’, Tom Jackson pen 75’, pen 88’, Joel Stevens 113’, 118’)
Waitakere United 6 (Own goal 33’, Pascal Reinhardt 50’, 120’ + 1’, Dan Morgan 66’, 79’, Dylan Stansfield 91’)
HT: 1-1, FT: 4-4
Team Wellington win 3-2 on penalties
Auckland City 1 (Micah Lea’alafa 64’)
Hawke’s Bay United 0