Cambridge have taken over the lead of the Lotto NRFL second division after a nerve-wracking end to their local derby in which they beat Claudelands Rovers 4-3.
The Reds led Rovers 4-0 with only a quarter of the game to go but a late revival from the home side saw them threaten to square the match in added time.
The result maintains Cambridge’s record of close finishes this year with 12 of their 13 matches decided by a single goal margin.
The game was crucial to the title hopes of both Waikato clubs.
Going into the derby, both had lost three games (including Chatham Cup ties) in a row and a win would take one to the top of the table.
Cambridge were without first team regulars Harry Wick (suspended after five yellow cards) and goalkeeper Patrick Steele (sitting an exam) but welcomed back Nathan Claridge who dropped into his holding midfield role.
The opening half hour of the match was an arm wrestle as both midfields fought for possession and most chances were coming from set pieces.
Indeed it was such a set piece that broke the deadlock in the 35th minute when striker Josh Clarkin met a Marcelo Sosa corner at the near post to sneak the ball into the Rovers net.
Five minutes later, the Reds doubled their lead with a superb move that saw midfielder Levi Clark trickle a ball down to the byline for Aaron Huesser to cross perfectly to Josh Clarkin who calmly nodded the ball into the net.
Going into the break 2-0 up seemed strange territory for a Cambridge side more used to trailing early and mounting thrilling fightbacks late in the game.
And when the Reds stormed to a 4-0 lead, the result looked in the bag.
In the 53rd minute, Daniel Clarkin sweetly struck a low shot from 25 metres to beat ‘keeper Chris Brimblecombe for his second goal of the season.
Ten minutes later, referee Mark Owens ruled a Rovers defender had tripped a Red and awarded Cambridge a penalty.
Sosa, who has already converted two penalties this year, stepped up and recreated the famous pankenka penalty, chipping the ball over Brimblecombe and into the net.
The penalty typified the confidence with which Cambridge were playing.
But the lead seemed to prompt a drop in concentration and Claudelands Rovers threw everyone forward, encouraged by a large home crowd boosted by neutrals as Wanderers and Melville had no Northern League games in Hamilton.
Jono Viviani pulled back a goal in the 68th minute. He grabbed his second a few minutes later.
With quarter of an hour to go, Cambridge began slowing down play and working down the clock.
Even so, the Reds had a great chance to put the game beyond doubt when Clark set up Zach Mayo for a shot which pinged off the goalpost.
The game went into added time and after two minutes, Kyle Kirsten pulled the score back to 4-3.
The Reds had to withstand a couple minutes more before the referee blew for full-time, sending Cambridge to the top of the ladder and despatching Rovers to fourth spot.
Cambridge’s lead was helped by other title contenders Metro FC and Manurewa not having fixtures over the weekend so five clubs are within a three-point range in the push for promotion to division one.
The division has had four different leaders so far this season – with the Reds becoming the latest to take pole position.
The Reds can stay there if they beat seventh-placed Oratia United (away) next Saturday (June 22, 3pm kick off).
Their next home game is Saturday June 29 when Franklin United (currently ninth on the table) visit John Kerkhof Park.
Main photo: Josh Clarkin (15) celebrates his second goal with teammates Levi Clark (left), Zach Mayo (9) and Marcelo Sosa.
Lotto NRFL second division results
Manurewa v Franklin United (postponed due to cup fixture)
Metro FC v Oratia United (re-scheduled to August)
Albany United v Unimount Bohemian Celtic (rescheduled to August)
Claudelands Rovers 3 (Jono Viviani 68’ 72’, Kyle Kirsten 90+2’)
Cambridge 4 (Josh Clarkin 35’ 40’, Daniel Clarkin 53’, Marcelo Sosa 63’)
Northland FC 1 (Kyle Levell 46’)
Greenhithe Catimba 1 (Pablo Hormazabal 66’)
Onehunga Mangere United 7 (Abraham Kahlil 46’, Rinal Prasad 51’ 71’ 76’, Alex Witteveen 58’ [PEN] 86’, Charlie Heather 63’)
Ngongotaha AFC 2 (Luke Barker 3’, Nathan Monne 28’ [PEN])
Cambridge reserves lost 6-2 to Claudelands Rovers in the early game at Galloway Park.