Hakoah Sydney City East has stunned the National Premier League NSW competition with a final day 2-1 victory against APIA Leichhardt Tigers denying the Lambert Park side a second consecutive Premiership title.
The visitors took the lead in the first half before APIA pegged their opponents back with a goal from Tasuku Sekiya ten minutes after the break.
Adrian Ucchino might’ve won the game – and the title – for his side with a penalty but could only blast his spot kick over the crossbar.
With two minutes left on the clock, Robert Ezekiel popped up to seal a stunning win for Hakoah and deliver heartbreak for APIA and their fans.
It was an incredible result to finish the season and one which is sure to cut deep for a long time to come for the Tigers.
With little but pride to play for, Hakoah came out strong; Andre De Jong’s wayward shot from distance a warning of the visitors intent to win.
They went close again a few minutes later when Amaury Gauthier rose in the middle to meet a corner, but the header lacked conviction and sailed wide of the target.
Shaken from their early stupor, APIA drove forward through Tasuku Sekiya, who blasted a shot against the goalkeeper only for Sean Symons to collect the ball and graze the crossbar with a shot of his own a few moments later.
Nathan Millgate took a bouncing ball on the run before swiping a volley wide of the near post, while Sekiya won a corner which Adrian Uccinho swung in for Anthony Bouzanis to swipe clear.
APIA appeared to be knocking on the door after an indifferent start, but pushed forward at the expense of their defensive line. They were left hopelessly exposed as Andre De Dong streaked clean through the middle on the break, with Ivan Necevski left to make a terrific save in the one-on-one to keep the game scoreless.
There was little Necevski could do about Hakoah’s next attack, as a ball dropped into the box from the left flank for Amaury Gauthier to smash home past the stranded keeper with minutes to go until halftime.
The situation became even more dire at the break as news filtered through that Sydney Olympic had taken a lead at Belmore. Still, APIA picked themselves up to equalise just six minutes after the restart, as Sekiya took a loose ball on the left before picking his spot and guiding the ball perfectly across the goalkeeper and into the top right corner.
APIA looked to lack control in the midfield despite their goal, with Sekiya and Parisi pushing forward to leave a gap behind them. Themba Muata-Marlow saw a weak header gathered easily by Bouzanis, while up the other end Andre De Jong fell to deflect a shot past the post as Hakoah looked for the killer blow.
Corey Biczo came on as a substitute to have a shot saved at point blank range; the ball coming to him at a near-impossible angle at the back post.
With scores level heading into the final ten minutes, APIA might’ve felt they had one hand on the Premiership when Sean Symons won a penalty in the 83rd minute; jinking behind his man before going down to give his side a golden chance to take the lead for the first time in the match.
Adrian Ucchino took responsibility for the spot kick, and succumbed to the pressure of the moment as he drilled his penalty over the crossbar .
Ucchino’s miss served as a turning point in the match – and the title race – as Hakoah drove forward to grab a second, with Andre De Jong holding the ball up for Robert Ezekiel to sweep in a second for the visitors.
APIA had chances to snatch a draw, but by now the players looked exhausted. Howard Fondyke drilled a low shot just past the near post, before Nathan Millgate popped up at the back post to glance a cross from Franco Parisi wide of the goal.
One late goal seemed possible for the Tigers, but two in the final few minutes proved too much. In first place heading into Round 22, APIA Leichhardt must settle for second ahead of their first finals clash next weekend.
APIA’s Billy McColl remained proud of his team’s effort over the course of the season as they look towards the finals, regardless of the result on a bitterly disappointing final day.
“We were still positive at halftime. We were controlling the game and we’re a footballing team, so we knew we were going to create chances and we did create chances – today they didn’t go in,” he said.
“It’s been a great year and we’re disappointed not to win the title, but if you can’t put your shots away then you don’t win. Hakoah took their chances and they’ll take the points.”
“To finish the season with three wins is great for us,” said Hakoah’s Gavin Rae.
“APIA have been a difficult opponent for us recently – at least over the last couple of seasons – so to get a result against them is great as well. We went and nicked it at the end, but that’s football. Fortunately for us we got the win.”
APIA Leichhardt Tigers FC 1 (Sekiya 51’)
Hakoah Sydney City East FC 2 (Gauthier 34’, Ezekiel 88’)