Leading contenders Wellington Olympic and Birkenhead United have both dropped valuable points as the title race for the Men’s National League enters its final stages.
Both sides drew 1-1 with mid-table opponents, results they might rue when the grand final places are confirmed in a fortnight.
With only six league points left to play for, the rush to finish in the top two still favours Olympic and Auckland City, but Sunday’s draw may have dashed Birkenhead hopes of a grand final spot.
Main photo: This goal by Napier City Rovers might prove costly for Birkenhead United’s title hopes.
Here’s our round-up of Sunday’s fixtures:
Late penalty costs Olympic vital points
A stoppage-time penalty by Wellington Phoenix reserves has forced high-flying Wellington Olympic to drop two vital points after a 1-1 draw at Fraser Park.
Jesse Randall opened the scoring for Olympic midway through the first half and both sides had a number of opportunities to find the back of the net in normal time.
Lukas Kelly-Heald earned the young Nix a penalty in the 89th minute and after a long delay Josh Tollervey stepped up to send Scott Basalaj the wrong way from the spot and earn the reserves a share of the spoils.
Phoenix head coach Chris Greenacre made four changes to the XI which started the 2-0 defeat to Auckland City last week. Alby Kelly-Heald replaced Callum Kennett in goal, while Isaac Hughes, Dan McKay and Ben Wallace came in for Joseph Chiari, Josh Rudland and the injured Finn Surman.
Kelly-Heald and Baslaj were both called into action in the opening half an hour, producing sharp saves to deny Gianni Bouzoukis and Kaelin Nguyen respectively.
Bouzoukis caught Kelly-Heald out in the 28th minute, with Randall tapping his chip into the back of the net from a yard out.
Basalaj was the busier of the ‘keepers at the start of the second-half and denied Nguyen for a second time in the 52nd minute.
The young Nix continued to push for an equaliser and they thought they had won a penalty when Ben Wallace appeared to be fouled in the box seven minutes from full-time.
Their appeals weren’t waved away a second time a handful of minutes later after Kelly-Heald went down in a heap in the Olympic box.
Tollervey, who came on as a substitute midway through the second-half, took charge of the penalty and delivered to secure the Wellington Phoenix reserves their third draw of the season.
Birkenhead fluff their lines in Napier
Birkenhead United’s 1-1 draw with Napier City Rovers might have derailed the club’s charge for a spot in the grand final on December 4.
Going into the game, Birkenhead needed the three points to at least stay in touch with leaders Auckland City and Wellington Olympic but the dropping of two points at Bluewater Stadium means United now need to win their remaining games and their rivals to fall into a late season hole.
Birkenhead took the lead from the penalty spot in the 20th minute.
Jake Piper went down in the box, the ball rebounded to Alex Connor-McClean who also went down under contact, and referee Luke Gardner pointed to the spot.
Captain-for-the-day Luke Jorgenson hit the penalty up the middle for his third goal of the season.
Rovers levelled in the 37th minute when a free kick curled into the box led to a goalmouth scramble in which Jonathan McNamara got enough contact for the ball to roll over the goalline, despite the desperate attempts to claw it back by United ‘keeper Silvio Rodic.
The sides were tied 1-1 at the break.
Birkenhead brought on five substitutes in one change just after the hour, a move that gave the visitors energy and momentum.
But as the game wore on, Rovers gained in confidence and showed no signs of wilting.
To the frustration of their players, Birkenhead could not find a way through and a goalless second half will leave them wondering what might have been.
Games played on Sunday November 13, 2022
Wellington Phoenix 1 (Josh Tollervey 90+1′ pen)
Wellington Olympic 1 (Jesse Randall 26′)
Napier City Rovers 1 (Jonathan McNamara 38′)
Birkenhead United 1 (Luke Jorgenson 20′ pen)
Games played on Saturday November 12, 2022
Christchurch United 2 (Blake Weston 32′, Daniel Maclennan 76′)
Auckland City 3 (Reid Drake 36′, Cam Howieson 40′, Angus Kilkolly 61′ pen)
Auckland United 2 (Nic Zambrano 38′, 77′)
Cashmere Technical 1 (Garbhan Coughlan 17′ pen)
Miramar Rangers 2 (own goal 32′, Sam Mason-Smith 51′)
Melville United 3 (Olliver Colloty 38′, 71′, Ryen Lawrence 64′)