After a year that truly has no comparison for any of us, the football season in New Zealand has also been paused for a while. Although the global pandemic offered a strong enough context to put even football on hold, the men’s football league ISPS Handa Premiership has just recently resumed its activity.

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What Happened With the Two Teams During the Coronavirus Break?

This NZ Football Championship debuted with fresh energy and a match that was expected by many: Auckland City against Eastern Suburbs. To give a bit of context for both teams, let’s see what happened with each one since the previous season. For Auckland City, it’s the second year with Jose Figueira guiding them, which brings more familiarity to their system. There have been two major Auckland City departures, Clayton Lewis and Myer Bevan, and one exciting addition, Mohamed Awad.

The Eastern Suburbs, on the other hand, is the only team to have changed their manager off-season. The team that previously finished fourth in the championship now has one major loss under its belt and that’s Martin Bueno, the Uruguayan that managed to score 11 goals within 15 matches. However, the Eastern Suburbs have teamed up with the Ole Academy once more, which gives them an undeniable edge during this championship.

The game between Auckland City and Eastern Suburbs was intense, to begin with, as their last outing was before the pandemic outbreak, back in early spring. The players were greeted by a bumper crowd that was just as enthusiastic to see the action as they themselves were.

An Injury-Ridden Game

It seems this long break may have indeed taken a toll on the players’ physical capabilities since the match was sprinkled with injuries of all kinds. Auckland City’s Mario Bilen was the one to open the match with an ankle injury as early as the twelfth minute, after which he left the field. Josh Rogerson was soon to follow with a shoulder injury, while Logan Rogerson seemed to have a hamstring issue that ultimately incapacitated him during the match. Adam Thomas was also taken off ten minutes before the match ended on account of a groin-related issue.

Andrew Blake and Dan Edwards also had a painful encounter by knocking heads, while Alfie Rogers also seemed to be affected by a bothersome head knock.

The goalkeepers were also eager to get back into the game after what seemed like a never-ending eight-month break. Cam Brown truly shone when he pulled off a save from Edwards and he didn’t do it just once, but twice with the same opponent, giving his team the chance to carry on with no dents on their side of the scoreboard. On the other side of the football field, Danyon Drake also proved his worth defending his team on various occasions.

The Controversy That Changed the Course of the Match

However, he couldn’t prevent Tade from scoring a goal on what was the most controversial point of the match – the penalty awarded by referee Matt Conger. The referee judged the ball hit Christian Gray in the arm, when in fact replays show the ball had actually reached the lower part of his body. Even so, the controversial penalty was executed perfectly and Tade scored a decisive goal that proved to remain the only one of the entire match. The pressure continued to rise for Drake when Tade managed to closely miss the net, by shooting a free-kick straight into the crossbar.

An Action-Filled Match That Opened the Championship in Style

In the end, the match proved to be suspenseful and action-filled, with eager players that wanted to kick off the season in full energy, especially after such a long and seemingly unpredictable break. Emotions were already flying high on both ends of the field until the penalty decisively fueled them to the maximum.

Auckland City will thus carry forward with one victory under their belt when they meet their next competitor. The ISPS Handa Premiership will have a different format this coming season with eight teams playing instead of ten. However, this is only a formal change, since three of them, Southern United, Tasman United, and Canterbury United Dragons will all come together and play under the latter’s name.

The championship may have opened with controversial referee decisions that may have rattled some, but it’s safe to say it will be one played with eagerness and passion for the game, especially in these extraordinary pandemic times that leave no other alternative than to give it all, regardless if it’s on the field or watching the match on TV.

Chris Darwen
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